December 12, 2011

Climate change - it’s a problem that can’t wait

The marathon UN climate conference approved a roadmap towards an accord that for the first time will bring all major emitters of greenhouse gases under a single legal roof. The deal was reached after nearly 14 days of talks under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The world forum also launched a Green Climate Fund to help channel up to $100-billion a year in aid to poor, vulnerable countries by 2020, an initiative born under the 2009 Copenhagen Summit.

The goal of discussions was to advance the implementation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol and build on previously agreed instruments, such as the Bali Action Plan and decisions taken at COP16 in Cancun. The most notable shift in the world since the Kyoto agreement is the gaining of importance of developing countries, not least so China. To give the full titles: the meeting held in Durban was the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to UNFCCC and the 7th Session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties (MOP7) to the Kyoto protocol. The effectiveness of the Kyoto protocol had been reduced by the refusal of the US to become a party to it and the protocol’s inability to restrain fast-growing pollution from emerging economies such as China.

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted on December 11, 1997 and entered into force on February 16, 2005. Currently, there are 193 parties (192 states and one regional economic integration organisation) to the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol sets binding targets in reducing greenhouse gas emissions for developed countries. The first commitment period, however, expires at the end of 2012. A successor to the Kyoto Protocol steered the debate in Durban. One of the specific options under debate is an extension of the protocol for developed countries – which would have to include the US, currently not a party to the agreement.

China has offered to bring in binding commitments into a UN treaty after 2020 – and under conditions including the availability of finance. While this leaves much to be desired with regard to the urgent need to mitigate climate change, this move by China was lauded by SA’s chief negotiator, International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, as well as by representatives of the EU. It was, at the same time, strongly contested by the US.

Compared to the mid-1990s, debates are taking place in a much changed world. Notably China and other developing countries have gained much more political clout – and much more impact on the world’s climate, too. The US economically has lost steam, but this does not mean reductions in greenhouse gases. Although the Kyoto Protocol has many critics, it has had tangible results: Kyoto countries are now about 17 percent below the 1990 emissions, while the US (accounting for about 25 percent of global emissions) is about 15 percent above 1990 emissions.

If there are no innovative interventions in its energy supply, the US is likely to fall behind economically over the next decades. Yet, due to its strong domestic lobby, it is unlikely that the US will sign any agreement in a second commitment period, as the strongly defensive reaction to the Chinese proposal illustrated. China eventually did move in Durban, thus learning from the criticism it attracted after blocking the Copenhagen Summit in 2009. This move by Beijing is putting the US in the tight spot. The EU is hinging its second commitment to the Kyoto Protocol on whether or not China and the US can show a serious commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

There was movement in Durban; how well this augurs for binding commitments beyond Durban remains to be seen. Ideally, by the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012, a new international framework should have been negotiated and ratified. A framework that can deliver the stringent emission reductions the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has clearly indicated are needed.

Way forward? In the overall context one problem seems to remain sticky: climate change and development are inseparably interlinked. An agreement that is optimal for the world and its future generations may not be optimal for some national economies, which would probably have to bear a large burden for significant domestic emissions reductions and which are not among the nation’s most gravely affected and threatened by climate change.
Consequently, the African continent needs to pursue the opportunities presented under climate change negotiations to better achieve its development aspirations. At the same time, and irrespective of the outcome of Durban, Africa needs to prepare for already visible effects of a changing climate. The key remaining question is how responsibility for global climate protection can be more equitably shared in future.

It is important to understand that this is not only about the future of the Kyoto Protocol, but also about protecting those countries that are most affected and involving those that have caused climate change during the past and the most substantial emitters of today. At the same time climate change is not a problem that can afford to wait.
It is a threat to development and peace that must be tackled with the greatest sense of urgency by the entire community of nations. This requires that certain rights and responsibilities are distributed with greater fairness in future. In order for that to happen, remaining political questions need to be resolved, especially on the future of the international climate regime.

The developed world and the emerging economies must be urged to take the constraints of Africa more seriously, especially when considering climate change response measures. Yet, with the financial crisis in Europe and the US economy going through a troubled phase, much remains uncertain and it will be seen whether COP17 optimally paved the way in setting up the much-needed Green Climate Fund as continued implementation of the decisions taken in Cancun. (The Star / Mail & Guardian)

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