After a Herculean effort by Durban negotiators to clean the climate change Aegean Stables, we have… what, exactly?

I don’t think we’ll know for sure for a while, and it will take years, possibly decades, to see how the entire process plays out. Remember, there was a time when the whole world was excited because the US had agreed to be part of the Kyoto Protocol, too. But I digress.

What seems to be a good summary of the Durban wrap-up comes from Business Week, in the piece, China, India Vow Pollution Cuts in Biggest Move on Climate (emphasis added):

Developing nations led by China and India pledged they’d work toward an agreement that would limit their fossil fuel emissions for the first time, the biggest advance in the fight against global warming in 14 years.

Delegates slept in the corridors as the talks teetered on the brink of collapse after the European Union, 42 island nations and 48 of the poorest states said they couldn’t accept a watered-down deal. India refused to sign an agreement that would bind it to an unwritten treaty and threaten its economy.

Delegates who were mainly national environment ministers agreed to work toward bringing the next treaty into effect from 2020. That proposal allowed the EU almost alone to say it would make further commitments under Kyoto.

“The ambition of the package is extremely low,” Nicaraguan minister Paul Oquist Kelley said in an interview. “It says this is a critical problem that’s time urgent, so let’s do something about it in 10 years. You have low ambition, low urgency. We’re ignoring what’s happening before our eyes.”

This year’s meeting sets out a plan for the envoys to adopt a new treaty limiting fossil fuel emissions for all nations, requiring developing nations to take on the same sort of restrictions the European Union has adopted with Kyoto. The 27- nation bloc that did the most to limit carbon dioxide since Kyoto was agreed in 1997, demanded in exchange for extending the protocol that all nations make a political statement indicating when they’d join in reductions.

That required China and India to drop their resistance to taking on the sorts of targets, a victory for the U.S. which has pressed for the shift for more than a decade. Republicans in Washington have stalled President Barack Obama’s climate legislation noting that China and India have become two of the three biggest polluters since Kyoto was agreed.

“This is a significant package, I think a very significant package,” Todd Stern, the lead U.S. envoy at the talks, said during the debate last night.

What to conclude/guess/grudgingly admit/hope from this?

Expect to see this outcome — whatever it really is — to be grossly overplayed by both friends and foes. The black UN helicopter crowd will have baskets of kittens over it, and many greenies will act as if it’s a cure for bad breath, the common cold, and dysfunctional penile erection syndrome. It is, of course, nowhere near either end of the wonderfulness scale, as will become clear in the ensuing years when no helicopters show up and the sales of mouthwash, cold remedies, and boner pills continue unabated.

The biggest ground for misinterpretation will be what China and India did or didn’t promise. As described above, not a bloody lot. They agreed to work on a new agreement for a 2020 treaty. Between now and then they will almost certainly continue building non-CCS coal plants at a breakneck pace and eating into humanity’s global carbon budget at ever faster rates, which will, perversely enough, make it easier for them to show tremendous progress in cutting emissions — they’re going to spend the next nine years adding tremendous amounts of low-hanging fruit.

If you think that’s an overly pessimistic or cynical viewpoint, consider what the IEA says about these two countries and coal in the World Energy Outlook 2011 (page 353, emphasis added):

China, responsible for nearly half of global coal use in 2009, holds the key to the future of the coal market with an ambitious 12th Five-Year Plan to reduce energy and carbon intensity through enhanced energy efficiency and diversifying the energy mix. In the New Policies Scenario, China accounts for more than half of global coal demand growth, with its demand growing around one-third by 2020 and then declining slightly before remaining broadly stable, above 2,800 Mtce, through to 2035.

India also plays an increasingly important role. By more than doubling its coal use by 2035 in the New Policies Scenario, India displaces the United States as the world’s second-largest coal consumer by 2025. Over 60% of the rise comes from the power sector, reflecting the enormous latent demand for electricity in India: in 2009 about one-quarter of the nation’s population still lacked access to electricity. Bringing electricity access to all the world’s population by 2030, could entail more than half of the resultant increase in on-grid generation capacity coming from coal, compared with the New Policies Scenario.

The US, of course, won’t do nearly enough regarding our use of fossil fuels during that time frame. Anyone who finds that surprising is deeply delusional. The one potential bright spot is the EU, which seems to have figured out some time ago just how serious this problem is and appears willing to continue taking significant steps.

By all means, continue tracking these negotiations and agreements, starting with Qatar in 2012. But I urge everyone to resist the urge to leap to any conclusions about what any of it means until we see real action in the form of coal plants being shut down or cancelled and dramatic improvements in the energy efficiency of developed countries.