Environmental Law Students Attend 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change

The Durban Climate Change Conference brought together government representatives, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and civilians from around the world to advance the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol, as well as the Bali Action Plan and the Cancun Agreements.

Students and staff from the law school’s Program on International and Comparative Environmental Law participated in this year’s 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the UNFCCC in Durban, South Africa.

COP-17 was an opportunity to create a framework for holding countries to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, as the first commitment period ends December 31, 2012.

“You see the whole process from beginning to end.”

Representing the law school at COP-17 were students Zugeilly Coss, Ashley Gardana, Emmett Pepper, and Braunson Virjee, and Environmental Law Program Coordinator Erika Lennon. The group contributed to the conference and negotiations by working with environmental NGOs on issues related to the international climate regime. Specifically, they worked with the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and through them, with the Climate Action Network (CAN).

Zugeilly Coss, an LL.M. student in the International Legal Studies Program, participated in COP-17 as a member of the Dominican Republic delegation. Coss was thus directly involved as a representative of the Dominican Republic in meetings and negotiation sessions with other states.

(Photo: Gardana, Pepper, Coss, the Dominican Republic head of delegation, Lennon)

"The experience was helpful because it allowed students interested in climate change and international environmental law to meet numerous people from noted environmental nonprofits," said Gardana, a 3L. "We were able to work with them and make beneficial connections for the future."

The group’s daily duties included attending plenaries, working groups, and informal strategy sessions, and taking notes about the ongoing discussions among states. They also conducted legal research on issues that arose throughout the process.

Notes and research were shared with various NGOs to aid in influencing the course of negotiations.

“This was definitely a crash course in environmental law--you see the whole process from beginning to end,” said Emmett Pepper, a 3L. “There was one point where the conference broke for ten minutes, and everyone was meeting on the floor. I was able to get right up front. China was there, India was there, and they were negotiating about the language of something while 100 people crowded around.”

The law school group shared the latest news about COP-17 through frequent Twitter posts.

“It’s a slow process at points.”

Although it is not unusual for conference attendees to spend long hours at the Conference Center—the group often logged 12 hour days—COP-17 was unique in that the negotiations lasted an extra day.

According to Erika Lennon, the parties had a difficult time reaching a common agreement on fundamental issues about the future of the climate regime.

“Sometimes it’s a slow process when you're an observer. During the last few days of negotiations, you’re waiting for the final draft text to be released so it can be analyzed and discussed. Once that happens, you get closing summaries and plenaries, which, depending on the text released by the President of the COP or Chair of the Working Group, can be extensive.” shared Lennon.

Gardana added, “The process of more than 190 countries trying to agree on a document--through consensus--is frustrating but quite thrilling. As all countries must agree, I began to understand the perspectives and needs of countries.  For example, China, a big emitter, highlights the need to include 'historical emissions' in the text, while other countries strongly require 'common but differentiated responsibility' to be included.” 

“Perfect is the enemy of good.”

The climate conference resulted in the adoption of the "Durban Package", which includes the "Durban Platform", an agreement on the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol beginning in 2012, and adoption of the Green Climate Fund's governance structure.

The Platform is an agreement to develop a legally binding agreement by 2015, and to go into effect no later than 2020, to be applicable to all Parties under the UNFCCC (including the United States and emerging economies). However, the Durban Platform does not provide any details about the path to an agreement or what that agreement should include. Similarly, the decision on the Green Climate Fund does not link to any agreement on the sources of funds that will capitalize it.

Overall the law school attendees felt the conference made necessary progress, but they noted that these steps foward would not be enough to address climate change effectively.

According to Lennon, COP-17 merely put off what needed to be done for the climate and instead pushed it to future negotiations.

“I think the Durban Package prevented the COP from being a complete collapse, and took some necessary steps forward in the process,” she said. “Ultimately, though, the package did not go far enough in terms of ambitious moves, like committing to emissions reduction targets necessary to keep temperature rise below two degrees Celsius or committing the finances necessary to help countries adapt to and mitigate climate change.”

Lennon identified other shortcomings of the Package, for example, the inability to determine the length of the second Kyoto Protocol commitment period (either to 2017 or 2020).

(Photo: Pepper, Gardana, Virjee)

“One of the mantras of the conference was that ‘perfect is the enemy of the good,’” explained Emmett Pepper. “That’s what we got with the conference. It wasn’t entirely perfect. I do think it was a good step in the right direction and we’re finally moving together as one planet.  Even though the trip to Durban pushed my finals into 2012, I am very glad to have witnessed what I believe was a small but significant piece of world history being made.”

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