First chuffs from the Durban climate train

Sherpa on Himalayan mountain Image copyright AP
Image caption Himalayan sherpas have warned about the recent melting of icefields and glaciers

Last week, we heard the first tiny sounds of a train leaving the Durban Platform.

For those of you who don't speak UN climate convention-ese, what I mean is that governments have taken their first tentative steps in the process towards negotiating a new global climate deal.

The agreement to start talks now and reach such an deal by 2015 was the major decision of December's UN climate convention (UNFCCC) meeting in Durban, South Africa.

Why it's called the Durban "Platform" rather than "process" or "mandate" is beyond me, but Durban Platform it is, and it's a phrase that could become as familiar as "Kyoto Protocol" in the next few years.

The first thing that governments committed themselves to was sending in their thoughts on how "ambition" could be increased - in other words, how carbon emissions can be tackled more enthusiastically than they are at the minute.

Their deadline was last Wednesday; and when I looked on the UNFCCC website then, things didn't look too promising, with Pakistan's the only submission posted, and that focussing mainly on forestry.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Lack of urgency will lock in investment in coal-fired power stations, the EU warns

Since then, quite a few more have gone up - and reading through, you get a sense of where the battles are going to be fought.

The submissions of the blocs of countries most vulnerable to climate change are probably the least surprising.

Gambia, on behalf of the Least Developed Countries bloc (LDCs), points out that developed nations (Annex 1 countries, in UN-speak) have simply not committed to the carbon cuts that science indicates they should, if they are serious about constraining the rise in average global temperature since 1990 below either 1.5C or 2C - targets that different groups of countries espouse.

"The current pledges proposed by Annex I countries in aggregate add up to 13-18% [by 2020] below 1990," the submission reads.

"Compared to the 25-40% range estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to be required, this aggregate reduction is insufficient to achieve the 1.5C and 2C climate goals..."

In the face of projections of sea level rise, water shortages and various other impacts across these nations, they urge swift action.

"If emissions are not reduced in line with scientific requirements in the nearÔÇÉterm, it would be extraordinarily difficult or impossible to compensate later on," says Nauru, on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis).

"In other words, the chance to achieve the below 2C and well below 1.5C goals may be irrevocably lost even before 2020."

Delay creates two types of problem, says Aosis.

One is physical, in that tipping points such as release of methane trapped in Arctic ice may be irrevocably triggered. The other is that finance will be committed to high-carbon technologies that will keep emitting CO2 for decades, rather than low-carbon ones.

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Action that helps cope with the effects of climate change - for example construction of barriers to protect against rising sea levels, or conversion to crops capable of surviving high temperatures and drought.

While these two blocs are demanding urgency, with action kicking in well before 2020 from as many countries as possible, that's not the view of their developing world partner India.

In Durban, India stood out longest and loudest against moves to kick-start a new process, on the grounds that only Annex 1 countries should as of now be committing to anything.

While it's happy to see those nations get started on carbon cutting before 2020, it doesn't believe that anyone else should have to as a result of the Durban agreement.

"India is of the view that the work plan for enhancing mitigation ambition of Parties relates to the post-2020 period," its submission reads.

What follows is a bit technical, but essentially the argument is that the scientific evidence for having any countries set emission reduction targets comes from the IPCC's last report, known as AR4, which came out in 2007.

And as those targets refer to Annex 1 countries, India argues, they should get on with it; but not the rest.

The next IPCC report, AR5, comes out in 2013-4. And the UNFCCC is due to have its own review of the mismatch between science and policy in 2013-15.

"Considering the fact that the results of the peer-reviewed comprehensive scientific assessments under AR5 and the work of 2013-15 review will be available only in the time frame of 2015... the only available time frame for making scientific assessment of the mitigation efforts by all Parties is the post-2020 period," India argues.

India's per capita emissions and income are still relatively low, and will remain so until beyond 2020 at current rates of growth.

But the validity of its argument will be questioned on the basis that some non-Annex 1 countries, such as the Gulf states, already have higher per capita emissions than some in Annex 1.

Image copyright SPL
Image caption Small island nations warn of the near-term threat of sea level rise

And the biggest elephant in that particular room is the great leap forward in China's per capita emissions that could take it past the EU average well before 2020.

The EU's submission is the one that really breaks new ground, by demanding that this issue be put on the table and formally discussed.

Developing country submissions (including those from India, Bolivia and Ecuador) all use the familiar form of words enshrined in the UNFCCC - that countries should take action on the basis of "common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities".

Where the EU breaks new ground is by pointing out formally that these things change.

"The new agreement to be negotiated... should include mitigation commitments for all Parties and in particular all major economies taking into account that responsibilities and capabilities are differentiated but evolve over time and that the agreement should reflect those evolving realities by including a spectrum of commitments in a dynamic way," it says.

In other words - if you get rich fast and your emissions rise accordingly, you should expect to shoulder a bigger share of the global emission-cutting burden.

The EU also backs the Aosis arguments for swift action.

"The scale of the global mitigation challenge beyond 2020 is strongly dependent on successful pre-2020 mitigation; the feasible emission pathways and future mitigation costs beyond 2020 depend to a large extent on the ability to transform investment patterns within the next few years."

The EU argues that a number of initiatives are in train outside the UNFCCC that could and should play a major role in the next few years:

The remaining key submission posted on the UNFCCC site at the time of writing comes from the US.

It finds some common ground with the EU in advocating an end to fossil fuel subsidies, swift action on aviation and shipping emissions, and mobilising investment in clean technologies.

However, on the subject of whether governments' existing 2020 targets should be strengthened, there's a strong hint of a "no" in the form of words that its endlessly inventive lawyers have crafted:

"Although the work plan should seek to encourage all Parties to enhance their mitigation efforts to the greatest extent possible, the work plan should also respect the integrity of Parties' nationally derived targets and actions and limitations inherent in taking economically sound mitigation policies at a national level."

As the US is the country most responsible for the gap between the 25-40% ambition recommended by the IPCC and the 13-18% level noted by Aosis, it's hard to see quite how that gap can be bridged without the US being willing and able to do a bit of swift enhancing.

The first official talks on the Durban Platform happen in May. But the negotiating positions of some of the major players - no China yet, or Saudi Arabia or Russia or Japan - seem pretty clear and, for the most part, pretty familiar.