The cost of curbing climate change

2011-11-28 00:00

“COP17 must provide opportunity for both South Africa and the African continent to ensure that Climate Change and associated changes in climate patterns do not threaten development,” Edna Molewa, Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, and head of the South African delegation for Cop17 said at a press briefing last week.

Or, put another way: yes, we want to address issues of climate change but we don’t want to do it at the expense of our economies. It’s a sentiment that every country attending Cop17 would echo.

South Africa is both the host and a player in the Cop17 Climate Change Conference that starts today in Durban and runs until December 10. It’s important for South Africa that the conference be judged a success and that success will depend in many ways on the negotiating and brokering skills of incoming Cop17 president Maite Nkoana Mashabane, Minister of International Relations and Co-operation. It’s her job to negotiate an outcome from Cop17.

In 2009, President Jacob Zuma played broker at Copenhagen (Cop15) helping to forge the accord negotiated between South Africa, China, India, Brazil and the U.S. in the closing moments of the conference. The accord was a face-saver, delivering less than two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emission cuts required to keep the global temperature rise below the required two degrees Celsius.

Many counted the accord a diplomatic victory for Zuma, although African countries were less happy as they felt South Africa had broken ranks from the African block to further its own interests.

While the Copenhagen accord didn’t satisfy anybody it did keep the climate change ball in play until Cop16 at Cancun in 2010 which managed to come up with a set of agreed outcomes.

According to Christiana Figueres, executive secretary, Secretariat of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), for Cop17 to be a success those agreed outcomes from Cop16 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.

And then there’s 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. It expires in 2012 and developing nations say it must be signed up for a second term — as does the UNFCC.

The protocol and its future will be what the negotiations at Cop17 will really be about and Figueres has been 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 the world presently has 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.”

But that doesn’t take into account the fact that many countries have been developing their own climate-change legislation, including South Africa, deliberately moving their countries towards green economies. This will be used as a reason for not endorsing a second protocol, especially as the Kyoto Protocol is totally insufficient as the signatories account for only 15% to 20% of greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s likely many delegates will take the position that we don’t need to sign the protocol because it’s ineffective and we will do better using our own legislation. Of course, that leaves them with more freedom to ramp up or, alternately, freeze legislation thus allowing for the development of their economies.

It is known that the 27 countries that make up the European Union will only make a second commitment to the protocol if there is an agreement that covers all emissions — not just the percentage covered by the Kyoto signatories.

Such a commitment is premised on buy-in from the Basic countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China). Which means the two blocs must talk to each other. And even if they do a deal it’s meaningless if the U.S. holds out. And the U.S. will be watching China, who, in turn, will be watching the U.S. Both countries are 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.

Russia, Japan, and Canada, are adamant they will not sign up for a second time. The future for the Kyoto Protocol looks bleak and it’s really only the developing countries that will try to keep it on the table.

Where will South Africa pitch its tent? We are classified as a developing country, as is China, and thus excused from signing the protocol as it is not considered to have contributed to global warming until recently. Plus we want our economy to come up to speed. But now China is top of the emission charts (with the U.S. at number two), while South Africa is number 13.

Incoming Cop17 president Mashabane says her job will be “to lead the world in forging a common consensus in terms of reversing these adverse effects of climate change”.

Mashabane is intent that the “trust which was restored in Cancun” mustn’t “suffer a second disconnect” as happened in Copenhagen, but she’s also aware that the trust restored at Cancun was at the price of not addressing all the issues on the table.

Mashabane’s stance currently reflects that articulated by Figueres, that “the Cancun Agreements must be operationalised” and that there must be a resolution “to the issue of the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol”. Note that “resolution” doesn’t mean sign on.

So what’s the position of the South African negotiators? Nobody’s putting their cards on the table yet and that probably won’t happen until December 6 in the second week of the conference when the High Level Segment begins and more than 100 ministers present their position statements.

Last week, Molewa spoke largely in generalisations. She said the recently gazetted National Climate Change Response Policy provided South Africa with a “clear road map of how this nation, as a responsive government to the needs of our people, and a responsible global citizen will respond to the global challenge of climate change”.

She said this plan would accommodate Zuma’s proposed voluntary emissions reduction to reduce South Africa’s greenhouse gas volumes by 34% before 2020 made at Copenhagen. However, current energy projections render this unlikely.

Other than that Molewa echoed Figueres and Mashabane in saying the success of Cop17 depended on “operationalising the Cancun decisions”. But can that be done without affecting economic development. It puts every country between a rock and a hard place. Let alone the future of the planet.

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