12/08/2011 05:45 EST | Updated 02/07/2012 05:12 EST

Durban's End Game

AFP/Getty File

With one day left in the Durban negotiations, the outline of a climate deal was taking shape. All but the ugly ducklings Canada, Japan and Russia, appeared ready to embrace a second commitment period under Kyoto, with additional targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And all but the U.S. seemed prepared to get the new Green Climate Fund up and running by this time next year.

However, the agreement within grasp was a feeble one. It would postpone for a decade the key aim of reducing the gap between pledged reductions in carbon emissions and the reductions scientists say are needed before 2020 if we are to avoid dramatic shifts in the climate. And it might leave the Green Fund an empty shell, bereft of revenue to help communities reeling from climate change.

There was no guarantee even this weak agreement could be pulled off.

For different reasons, governments were converging around a 2020 timeline for a post-Kyoto agreement. The U.S. seemed to be stonewalling, unwilling to negotiate anything before 2020. China was open to taking on legally binding commitments after 2020. Even pro-Kyoto Europe believed a new agreement would not enter into force until 2020. Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent, to his credit, called for a new agreement by 2015.

Alongside the refusal of the ugly ducklings to commit to a second Kyoto period, the 2020 timeline has grave consequences for keeping global warming below the two degree target already agreed, let alone the 1.5 degree limit scientists say is needed. Emissions have to peak in 2015 and fall sharply thereafter if we are to avoid the worst of Nature's lash.

Tipping Point in Sight

The options on the table did not add up to enough to close the gigatonne gap -- options such as capping emissions from international transport, extracting mitigation pledges from Argentina or Saudi Arabia, or moving countries that have made a range of pledges to the top-end of the range.

Only a new round of more ambitious reductions would be sufficient to close it. A 2020 timeline effectively would lock in the inadequate targets agreed in Copenhagen, and push the world towards, if not over, the tipping point.

On the Green Climate Fund, there were bitter exchanges. But this appeared to be grandstanding to seek leverage in other areas of the negotiations. Provided the rest of the package came together, the Fund would be launched, though there was as yet no agreement on the sources of revenue to fill it.

A levy on maritime shipping that could raise $25 billion a year remained in the draft text, despite U.S. opposition and Canada's silence. But for how long? And if emissions continue their runaway growth for another decade, how could any amount of funding allow vulnerable communities to adapt?

As we enter Durban's final day, an agreement seems plausible on a second period under the legally-binding Kyoto deal -- without Canada -- and a pathway to a new, wider legal agreement in 2020. This would at least lay a basis for future expansion, though it would do little to close the emissions gap in the coming decade. The Green Climate Fund could be launched but its funding hung in the balance.

Other scenarios are equally plausible. Governments that take climate change seriously could choose to defer, hoping more favourable political conditions will emerge over the coming year. Or a dramatic final plenary could end in collapse.

I'm an optimist by nature. An inadequate agreement is certainly preferable to none, as long as it leaves open the potential for improvement. Collapse would mean more hunger and suffering for the world's poorest people.

Mark Fried is policy coordinator at Oxfam Canada