Impassioned speeches by the environment ministers of China and India capped the finale of the UN climate summit that ended at Durban, South Africa, with the adoption of the Durban Package in the early hours of Sunday, nearly a day and a half behind schedule.

India’s Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan’s speech ensured that the government’s main concern – the inclusion of the concept of equity in the combat against climate change – became part of the package. The package said all countries would be part of a global agreement to control greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but Natarajan ensured there was a third option in the form this would take – now it can be a protocol or a legal instrument or “an agreed outcome with legal force”. The third option was included after a dramatic huddle while the plenary session of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) summit came to a halt.

The two protagonists were Natarajan and European Union climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard, who had started the row by objecting to the agreements reached earlier, behind closed doors. India had said it wanted a “legal outcome” as the third option, but Hedegaard said this would put countries’ “sincerity in doubt”.

That set Natarajan off, who started by saying “we have shown more flexibility than virtually any other country. But equity is the centrepiece, it cannot be shifted. This is not about India. Does fighting climate change mean we have to give up on equity? We have agreed to protocol and legal instrument. What’s the problem in having one more option?

“India will never be intimidated by any threat or any kind of pressure. What’s this legal instrument? How do I give a blank cheque? We’re talking of livelihoods and sustainability here. I’m not accusing anybody, but there are efforts to shift the (climate) problem to countries that have not contributed to it. If that is done, we’re willing to reopen the entire Durban Package. We did not issue a threat. But are we being made into a scapegoat? Please don’t hold us hostage.”

As Natarajan ended amid a thundering ovation from a hall packed with thousands of delegates from 194 governments, observers and the media, some other countries tried to support the EU position, but China came out strongly in India’s support.

China’s Vice Minister of the National Development and Reform Commission Xie Zhenhua pointed out the developing countries like India and China were “already doing much more than developed countries” to fight global warming. “We should look at not what is said but what is done. Some countries have made (legal) commitments but are not meeting them. We are doing whatever we should do. We are doing what you (rich nations) are not doing. What qualifies you to say all this? We are taking real actions. We want to see your actions.”

Then some countries supported India and China, while others supported EU, till conference president, South Africa’s Foreign Minister Maite Nkoane Mashabane, halted the session and asked EU and India to go into a huddle there and then. Unprecedented scenes followed as negotiators from all countries mobbed Natarajan and Hedegaard and snapped photographs, with no sign of exhaustion at 2 a.m. Chief negotiators of the US and China were in the huddle too. More frenzied applause told everyone that an agreement had been reached.

When the session reconvened, Natarajan said India had agreed to a change of wording in the third option “in a spirit of flexibility and accommodation”, while Hedegaard thanked India.

Under the Durban Package, rich nations have now agreed to reduce their GHG emissions from 2013 under the Kyoto Protocol, a key demand of developing countries. The end date of that commitment period has not been fixed, though. Negotiators will now have to choose between 2017 and 2020.

In return, all countries have agreed to be part of the global treaty, which is supposed to be negotiated by 2015 and to come into force in 2020. The package also included the birth of the Green Climate Fund, which had been conceived at the last summit in Cancun. The fund is meant to help poor countries cope with climate change effects, though there is no money in it yet.

As dawn broke over this port city and tired negotiators rushed to catch flights home, US chief negotiator Todd Stern said: “I think in the end we did quite well.” Britain’s chief negotiator Chris Huhne said he was “very happy with the outcome”.

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