How COP was saved

2011-12-12 00:00

IT took two powerful women and an early morning “huddle to save the planet” to ensure that Durban’s climate change talks ended in victory rather than an expected collapse yesterday.

The new United Nations climate deal was struck in the early hours of yesterday after 16 days of talks.

Significantly, it included China and the United States, the world’s two largest emitters of carbon gases, who ended their “coalition of the unwilling” to join more than 190 countries who, for the first time, have accepted binding emission cuts.

A second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol, which binds only a few developed countries and expires next year, was also agreed to.

European Union climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard played an important role during the talks, driving the EU plan for a collective buy-in to a legally binding agreement by 2015 to be implemented by 2020, covering developed and developing nations.

But it was a very close call, with the EU clashing with China and India over the legal form of a potential new climate deal. With talks close to being abandoned, it was left to COP17 president and International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane to try to save the day.

Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that Nkoana-Mashabane ordered China, India, the U.S., Britain, France, Sweden, Gambia, Brazil and Poland to meet in an early morning “huddle” and find the right wording acceptable to all.

Brazil’s chief negotiator, Luis Figueres, came up with the compromise wording, proposing to substitute “an agreed outcome with legal force” for “legal outcome”.

The Guardian quoted an EU lawyer as saying this is much stronger and effectively means “a legally binding agreement”.

It turned out to be the clincher and the talks, over-running by close on 30 hours, were back on track. Two hours later there was a commitment by all countries to accept binding emission cuts by 2020.

Another significant outcome was the full implementation of the package to support developing nations, agreed last year at COP16 in Cancun, Mexico. It includes setting up the operating structure of the Green Climate Fund, but apart from a handful of commitments, there was still no clear indication of how it will be funded.

Though looking tired, Nkoana-Mashabane and Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat, were clearly buoyant after yesterday’s breakthrough.

“There could be no better Christmas gift. Not for [me], but for the voiceless and the downtrodden and the women in the world, particularly those in Africa striving to feed their families,” said Nkoana-Mashabane. “We made history,” she said. “Countries put aside national interests to give hope to the less privileged.”

She explained that countries such as Japan, Canada and Russia, who would not sign up for a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol, and the U.S., who has never ratified it, will be part of the broader framework along with everyone else.

The length of the second commitment period — five or eight years — will be decided at next year’s COP in Qatar.

But not everyone was pleased.

Celine Charveriat, director of Campaigns and Advocacy for Oxfam, said negotiators had narrowly avoided a collapse by agreeing to a bare minimum deal possible. “Negotiators have sent a clear message to the world’s hungry: ‘Let them eat carbon’.”

Greenpeace Africa said the COP17 outcome is a victory for “carbon-intensive polluting corporations”.

Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International executive director, said: “Right now the global climate regime amounts to nothing more than a voluntary deal that’s put off for a decade. This could take us over the two degree threshold where we pass from danger to potential catastrophe.”

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