Looking for a cool deal

2011-11-08 00:00

GETTING the world to keep its cool — that’s the job of incoming Cop17 president Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Co-operation who will be heading up the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Durban later this month. Her role, according to the department’s Sabelo Sivuyile Maqungo, will be to facilitate an outcome. “It’s about kicking the ball forward,” he told journalists at a media workshop hosted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban recently.

At the previous two Cops, the ball very nearly got kicked out of play. The last Cop meeting was in Cancun, Mexico, and although not everyone was happy with the outcome it managed to progress from the near-disaster of Cop15 in Copenhagen (dubbed “Brokenhagen”) where, at the 11th hour, United States President Barack Obama conjured up an accord in a “behind closed doors” session with the Basic countries: Brazil, South Africa, India and China The accord was a face-saver, delivering less than two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emission cuts required if we are to keep the global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius.

The key to all this is the Kyoto Protocol adopted by Cop3 held in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, and which came into force in 2005. This set targets for 37 industrialised countries and the European Union for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Developing countries like China were excused as they were not considered to have contributed to global warming until recently. Now they are top of the emission charts with the U.S. at number two, the latter having signed but not ratified the protocol. Currently, South Africa is 13, behind Mexico and Italy.

However, none of the targets set by the Kyoto Protocol will be met by the end of the first commitment period in 2012 and a key issue for Cop17 will be to get a second commitment to the protocol.

“The Kyoto Protocol is key, that is absolutely clear,” said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary, Secretariat of UNFCCC speaking from Bonn via a video link to the Durban workshop last week. “But at the same time the protocol is completely insufficient.” That’s because the signatories account for only 15% to 20% of emissions.

So what are the hopes for Cop17? According to Figueres, the agreed outcomes of Cancun must be rendered operative. These include a technology mechanism to promote clean energy and adaptation-related technologies; an adaptation framework to co-ordinate international co-operation to help developing countries better protect themselves from climate change impacts; and a finance plan for the Green Climate Fund.

Figueres is emphatic that the future of the Kyoto Protocol must be a central part of the Durban outcome. “The Kyoto Protocol is the only legally binding treaty in the world at present to combat climate change, and it is important that governments safeguard what they have worked on so long to agree and develop, and what has proven effective.”

Figueres said she was heartened by progress made at conventions, such as the Bonn UNFCCC intercession meeting, held earlier this year. “Governments have moved from rigid positions,” she said. “They are looking to find a middle ground between ‘you and us’.”

It’s really a case of who blinks first or who is prepared to make concessions that will see others sign up. The 27 countries that make up the European Union will only make a second commitment if there is an agreement that covers all emissions — not just the percentage covered by the Kyoto signatories. However, such a commitment is premised on buy-in from the Basic countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China). For this to happen there has to be a deal between the two blocs.

Even if they do a deal it would be rendered meaningless if the U.S. holds out. And the U.S. will be watching China, which, in turn, will be watching the U.S. — both nervous about losing any economic competitive advantage. If China signs up it will be difficult for the U.S. to stay out, and vice versa.

And what about Russia, Japan and Canada, who have said they will not sign up for a second time?

While the developed countries play hardball the developing and undeveloped countries of the world look on. “Africa has a lot to win, and a lot to lose if action is not taken,” says Figueres. “Droughts and floods will continue to increase. And the irony is that the majority of countries in Africa don’t contribute to greenhouses gases.

“Climate change is potentially the largest challenge that humanity has ever faced,” says Figueres. “No country is unaffected by climate change and we are having to chart a path forward as we go. All 194 countries need to walk down that path together.”

FROM November 28 until December 9, Durban is hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference known as Cop17. It will be attended by representatives from 194 countries, plus the European Union.

In 1992, having accepted that human-induced climate change is making the Earth warmer, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was created, an international environmental treaty aimed at addressing global warming and consequent climate change. Since then a group known as the Conference of the Parties (Cop) has met annually to assess progress and attempt to chart a way forward. This is the 17th of those meetings, hence Cop17.

The main issue since the first Cop is how to keep the planet’s temperature from rising above two degrees Celsius measured from pre-industrial levels. Beyond that point it is thought climate change will accelerate with disastrous consequences for the planet. It is estimated that to keep below that two degrees Celsius threshold the world must cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050.

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