A lot of the reporting on Durban asserts that countries agreed to work out a deal that will force everyone in a legally binding manner to reduce emissions. Unfortunately, that is not true. The agreement is “to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change applicable to all Parties“. What people overlook is that a legally binding treaty must not necessarily contain legally binding commitments. The force of an agreement does not depend on what label it carries but on what content it has. The Framework Convention is a legally binding treaty that is applicable to all its Parties but it lacks legally binding emission reduction commitments. The Kyoto Protocol is a legally binding treaty applicable to all its Parties, which includes almost all of the world’s developing countries, but it only defines legally binding emission targets for industrialised countries.
The Durban agreement says that we are supposed to get a new legally binding agreement but it doesn’t say anywhere that this agreement is supposed to include legally binding emission reduction commitments, so this question is still completely open. And it can be expected that the USA and others will continue to fight tooth and nail against having legally binding emission reduction commitments in the new agreement.
In addition, even if the new agreement does contain legally binding commitments, countries may simply choose not to ratify it, as the USA did with the Kyoto Protocol, or to withdraw at a later stage, as Canada is now doing. International agreements are reflections of national will, not something that can be used to force countries to do things that they are unwilling to do.
Sorry to spoil the party but the Durban agreement is much less of a breakthrough than many make it out to be. Those who want to have legally binding commitments in the new agreement – and to have countries actually comply with them – have lot of work ahead.