After years of haggling, feet-dragging and out-and-out quarreling at UNFCCC conferences, the 2011 Durban Climate Change negotiations ended on the weekend with an agreement.
The last-ditch deal reached in the small hours of Sunday morning will have developed and developing countries working together for the first time on an agreement that should be legally binding on all parties, to be written by 2015 and to come into force after 2020.
“This agreement meets all the realistic expectations the New Zealand delegation had when it arrived in South Africa two weeks ago,” climate change negotiations minister Tim Groser said.
Importantly for New Zealand, the agreement improves rules in the treatment of land use and forestry while maintaining the legal structure of the existing Kyoto Protocol.
However, Groser and fellow climate change minister Nick Smith acknowledge important questions have been left unanswered.
“Most important, we, and no doubt Australia, will each need to make a decision in coming months whether to join Europe in inscribing our next set of international commitments within the framework of the Kyoto Protocol or to join all the developing countries, the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia and others, in making those commitments under the alternative transitional arrangements.”
It is not a matter of whether New Zealand will make commitments - but where they are made and how ambitious they will be.
“Like all countries, we will need to take account of our national circumstances and compare our efforts to the efforts of others. We want to do our fair share, but it will not be clear for some time what exactly others will be committing to,” the ministers said.
Another outcome at Durban was the success of a legally binding agreement; the pledge and review system favoured by countries like the US has been pushed away from the table.
India's environment minister made an impassioned speech in the final hours in which she maintained that equity – taking into account developing countries' economic capabilities, large populations still to be lifted out of poverty, and low responsibility for historic emissions – must be the basis of the negotiations.
However, the International Energy Agency estimates that by 2020 China's emissions per head will be equal to or higher than the EU's. That will make it difficult for India and China to base their argument for easier targets on its large population.
The vast quantities of carbon being poured into the atmosphere also mean historic emissions are less relevant – by the 2030s total emissions from developing countries in the past century could be greater than the total emissions from developed countries, apart from the US.
Scientists and environmentalists around the world are saying that this agreement is not enough to avert catastrophic climate change, but many concede it is a positive sign of political will.