Durban, South Africa—The new climate change agreements arduously reached last weekend at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has been widely hailed as an “historic breakthrough.” The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action commits all countries to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions, chiefly carbon dioxide, for the first time. To achieve this they have agreed to negotiate “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” by 2015. Whatever deal is reached then will have five years to be ratified and come into force by 2020. On the face of it, this does indeed appear to be a significant move ahead in climate change diplomacy. It’s not.

First, a bit of history. Under the Kyoto Protocol only industrialized countries were required to cut their emissions by an average of 5 percent below the levels they emitted in 1990. Meanwhile, developing countries like China, India, and Brazil could continue to emit carbon dioxide by burning coal, gas, and oil to produce the energy needed to fuel their economic growth and reduce poverty.

Recall that after the Kyoto Protocol was hammered out in 1997, President Bill Clinton never submitted it to the Senate for ratification. Why? Among other reasons is that the Senate had passed a resolution 95 to 0 asserting that it would not ratify any treaty that did not cover emissions from competitor nations like China. On this point U.S. climate diplomacy has never wavered, not even under the Obama administration. In fact, the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference fell apart because the Obama administration refused to agree to any new treaty governing greenhouse gas emissions that did not impose some kind of requirements on big emerging economies whose emissions are skyrocketing. President Obama knew that trying to get such a treaty ratified back home was politically impossible. China refused to make commitments and so the Copenhagen conference collapsed.

So as a face-saving measure, what emerged from the wreckage of Copenhagen was an Accord in which both developed and developing countries made voluntary pledges with regard to their greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the U.S. set the goal of cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below the levels emitted in 2005 and China offered to reduce its carbon intensity (the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per dollar of GDP) by 40 to 45 percent from its 2000 levels by 2020. By the way, the U.S.’s voluntary 17 percent cut below its 2005 emissions level by 2020 under the Copenhagen Accord would amount to about a 4 percent cut below its 1990 emissions level. Under the Kyoto Protocol the U.S. was supposed to reduce its emissions by 7 percent below its 1990 emissions level by 2012.

The Copenhagen Accord process of pledge and review was made official at the 2010 Cancun climate change conference where countries ultimately made promises pertaining to 85 percent of global emissions. Contrast this with the Kyoto Protocol which applied to around 15 percent of global emissions. The Obama administration has been pursuing its emissions reduction pledges by imposing higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards and requiring the abatement of carbon dioxide emitted by power plants as a pollutant harmful to human health.

At the negotiations in Durban, U.S. chief climate change envoy Todd Stern made it clear at press briefings that the U.S. position remained steadfast on the point that “legal parity” must apply to big emerging economies under any future new global greenhouse gas treaty. That is, countries like China, India, and Brazil would have to be bound to cut their emissions in the same way that industrialized countries are. Until that happened, the U.S. would be comfortable with the voluntary pledge and review process for cutting greenhouse gas emissions set up at the Cancun negotiations.

Meanwhile, the world’s only legally-binding climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, was faltering. Three members—Canada, Russia, and Japan—had all declared that they were not going to make further emissions reduction commitments for a second five year commitment period. The European Union’s market for carbon emissions permits, called the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), was at risk of collapsing unless the reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol were renewed and increased. So at Durban, the E.U. demanded that all countries, especially including developing countries, agree to a negotiations “roadmap” that by 2015 would lead to some kind of global emissions reduction scheme binding both developed and developing countries and coming into force by 2020. Otherwise, the E.U. would essentially kill off the Kyoto Protocol by not making additional greenhouse gas reduction commitments for a second period. Frankly, it is hard to see why this threat was an effective negotiating tactic since it amounted to saying that the E.U. would not impose higher energy costs on its consumers and producers unless every other country agreed to do so eventually.

Nevertheless, after grueling hours of late-night negotiations, the Durban Platform was adopted and the European “roadmap” was launched. The Europeans were keen to get COP-17 to endorse the phrase “a protocol or other legal instrument” as the ultimate goal of their climate negotiations “roadmap.” This is because that phrase was used in the 1995 Berlin Mandate in which countries agreed to accept a legally binding treaty requiring them to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. The result was the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The U.S. ended up supporting the E.U. at COP-17 and why not? The Durban Platform appears to conform to the central goal of American climate change diplomacy, i.e., forcing big emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil to make some kind of legally binding commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But does it?

At Durban, China and India managed to water down the Berlin Mandate terminology to include “or an agreed outcome with legal force.” Apparently, the Chinese and Indians believe that whatever climate negotiations do achieve by 2015, the result will be that they still will have fewer obligations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions than will rich developing countries.

Since COP-17 adopted its “roadmap,” the European Union graciously agreed to keep a rump version of the Kyoto Protocol alive by imposing further greenhouse gas emissions reductions on its taxpayers through 2017. It’s worth noting that the Swiss bank UBS issued a report in November which found that implementing Europe’s carbon market under the Kyoto Protocol has resulted in almost no low-carbon innovations in energy production while imposing about $280 billion in additional costs to European consumers.

Looking toward 2015, what is likely to happen? If global average temperatures begin rising steeply between now and then after a more than one decade pause that might lend a bit of impetus to agreeing to some kind of binding emissions reductions. Or if weather-related disasters dramatically increase that too might strengthen the public case for a new treaty. With regard to the latter issue, the new United Nations report on severe weather issued in November noted that for the next three or four decades the frequency and severity extreme weather events will likely be indistinguishable from past weather patterns.

Assuming that no compelling global warming signals emerge, how then is climate diplomacy likely to unfold? The new roadmap is supposed to follow a path similar to the one mapped out in the 1995 Berlin Mandate under which rich developed countries all agreed they would adopt a treaty with binding commitments to cut their emissions. But as history has shown, it didn’t work out that way. While the U.S. accepted the Berlin Mandate, it ultimately refused to join the Kyoto Protocol. If the Durban Platform results in a treaty in 2015 that the U.S. Senate or then presidential administration dislikes, presumably the U.S. will again similarly ignore its new commitment to adopt “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force.” Of course, other countries are likely do same.

The only Durban “breakthrough” is that 20 years of climate change diplomacy didn’t totally implode. It turns out that what was achieved at the conference in South Africa was not much more than an agreement among countries to continue talking about the things they disagree about. The 18th Conference of the Parties convenes next year in Qatar.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.