James Murray weighs up what the opposing reactions to the Durban Summit mean for green firms
Was the Durban Summit a) the forum that delivered a plan to "save one planet for the future of our children and our grandchildren to come", as described by South African Foreign Minister and chairman of the summit, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, or b) an endurance test that resulted in what Friends of the Earth executive director Andy Atkins described as an "empty shell of a plan that leaves the planet hurtling towards catastrophic climate change"? Answers on the back of a postcard to the UN climate change secretariat in Bonn please.
The responses to the signing of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action have split along predictably binary lines. Politicians, diplomats and some business leaders have spun the deal as an historic breakthrough, while acknowledging that there is a long way to go to ensure emissions peak. Meanwhile, world-weary green NGOs have slammed the summit as a soul-destroying diplomatic Groundhog Day that has singularly failed to deliver the aggressive policy measures that are required, while also acknowledging that some modest progress was made.
These responses are entirely understandable. It is the job of green groups to push governments for ever more ambition, just as it is the job of politicians to put a positive spin on their achievements (and be in no doubt: this agreement was a serious diplomatic achievement; there was a very real chance the talks would collapse).
However, these diametrically opposed responses to the new deal are not of much use to the business community - a business community that all sides of the debate agree will play a crucial role in ensuring whether these international climate change talks ever deliver the low carbon global economy they promise.
Ultimately, the only way to measure the success or failure of the annual jamboree that is the UN-backed COP summits is to get back to brass tacks and ask whether the meeting has helped or hindered the mobilisation of investment in low carbon and environmentally sustainable infrastructure and technology.
It is tempting to measure the success of the successive Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban Agreements against the ambition displayed in their pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But this is overly simplistic. Any eventual international treaty that contains commitments, legally binding or otherwise, to deliver deep cuts in emissions will only represent a statement of intention.
These treaties mirror nuclear disarmament agreements; they are a great starting point, but their success is entirely dependent on the willingness of signatories to actually begin to disarm. Similarly, an ambitious agreement to cut global emissions would be a great start, but the success would depend on individual countries' willingness to put their international obligations into action. No country is going to invade another for non-compliance with climate obligations (I hope) and, as such, binding emission reduction targets, while important, are not the magic bullet some ministers and campaigners seem to suggest.
The real measure of success for international climate talks in general, and the Durban Summit in particular, is whether they drive the response to climate change in terms of increased investment in emission reduction and adaptation measures, and whether they address the 'carbon leakage' that could see carbon intensive businesses from low carbon economies relocate to those regions not taking action to curb emissions.
The aim of the COP summits should not be to simply set emission reduction targets that the international community would then struggle to enforce, but to provide the policy direction and certainty necessary to drive global corporate investment in the technology and infrastructure necessary to cut emissions.
Targets can have an important role to play in delivering this certainty (the US and others are wrong to suggest we don't need legally binding targets, they help give investors precisely the certainty they want), but ultimate success will only come when we have technologies and business models that can deliver steep emissions reductions at low cost. Once we get there, carbon targets and international treaties will look after themselves as the market drives the transition to a global low carbon economy.
As soon as someone develops solar panels, wind turbines or nuclear power plants that can produce energy safely and at a lower cost than fossil fuels, the difficulty experienced over the past week in getting countries to sign up to ambitious emission reduction targets will quickly dissipate. Thankfully, the IEA and many other experts are predicting these new technologies will emerge between 2015 and 2020, just at the point negotiators have promised to deliver their new legal treaty.
So has the Durban Summit succeeded against the dual criteria of helping to drive low carbon investment and creating a level global framework that addresses 'carbon leakage'?
The answer, to a modest extent, is yes.
It might have taken three nights of semantic gymnastics, but for the first time we have an agreement that will sees all countries, including the large emerging economies of China and India, facing legally backed climate change obligations.
There are many more details to be finalised before we can hail the emergence of a genuinely global regime for curbing emissions, but carbon intensive companies considering relocating from regions with emissions reduction policies to developing countries such as India and China will now have to factor into their decision the likelihood that these economies will be required to deliver more ambitious legally backed green policies within the next decade.
All the major economies have also reiterated their support for the latest climate science and their commitment to ramping up investment in low carbon infrastructure through all means necessary, providing yet another signal to investors that this economic transition is here to stay despite the headlines currently being grabbed by the economic crisis.
In addition, largely under-reported progress on the formation of a Green Climate Fund, the expansion of the Clean Development Mechanism, the possibility of global aviation and shipping levies, and clarification on national emissions measurement, reporting and verification requirements should all help drive further private sector investment in low carbon technologies, goods and services.
Over the past two weeks plenty of commentators have suggested that the UN negotiating process is no longer fit-for-purpose and now needs to be put out to pasture to be replaced by a stripped down attempt to agree climate financing, forest protection, and national level emission reduction and clean tech investment action plans. They may have a point - it is hard to disagree that the process is dysfunctional when globally significant decisions keep getting made by people suffering from the kind of sleep deprivation more commonly associated with Japanese game shows.
But at the same time the negotiations seem to be slowly heading towards the kind of agreement many business commentators want to see, whereby all countries act in a degree of unison, policies drive investment in clean technology, climate adaptation and forest protection, and legal commitments provide investor certainty.
Be in no doubt, the Durban Platform is an inadequate response to the scale of the climate change threat and time is fast running out to deliver the deep cuts in emissions we urgently require to avoid the worst effects associated with rising temperatures. The green NGOs are right when they bemoan the paucity of the ambition shown by the international community.
But the Durban Summit has provided the clearest signal yet to green businesses and investors that the transition to a low carbon economy will not be derailed, and has also given them a deadline of four years to deliver the clean technologies that will make the completion of an ambitious legally binding climate change treaty so attractive that no one will lose sleep about signing up.
These results mean that, on balance, the Durban Summit has proved one of the most successful climate change summits in years.
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