By Stephen Leahy
The world is increasingly committed to dangerous levels of global warming with yet another failure by nations of the world to agree to needed reductions in carbon emissions here in Durban. However, as the 17th Conference of Parties ended early Sunday morning, members did agree to talk about a new global treaty to reduce emissions.
After two weeks and an additional 29 hours of intense and even bitter negotiations, the 193 nations participating in the United Nations climate talks agreed to a complex and technical set of documents called the “Durban Platform.” These include the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, a formal structure for a Green Climate Fund, new market mechanisms, and more.
The biggest development reached at dawn Sunday is an agreement to negotiate a new global treaty to reduce emissions by 2015. While this may look like simply agreeing to more meetings, it is the first time all nations have agreed to be governed by a new global emission reduction treaty under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Currently the promised emission reductions by industrialized countries and those of China, Brazil, South Africa, India and others under the 2009 Copenhagen Accord guarantee a world that is at least 3.5 degrees Celsius warmer on average according to climate science. It will be double that over large parts of the world. Some analysis says this global average could be even higher rising to four or five degrees Celsius threatening our species with annihilation.
Despite the political posturing by the United States, Canada and even the European Union, the fact is that developing countries’ promised reductions are greater than the industrialized world that are responsible for 75 percent of the total human emissions in the atmosphere.
“There are still no new pledges on the table and the process agreed in Durban towards raising the ambition and increasing emission reductions is uncertain in its outcome,” said Bill Hare, Director of Climate Analytics, a non-profit climate science advisory group based in Germany.
COP 17 President, South Africa’s Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, and others pleaded with countries to put their self-interest aside “for the greater good of the planet and its people.” Rich countries like the U.S., Canada and Saudi Arabia blocked progress and numerous fronts leaving smaller nations bitter and frustrated.
“The grim news is that the blockers lead by the U.S. have succeeded in inserting a vital get-out clause that could easily prevent the next big climate deal being legally binding,” said Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International Executive Director.
Even if a strong legally binding treaty is agreed to in 2015, it will have to ratified by governments before going into force. It took several years to ratify the Kyoto Protocol that the U.S. backed and then failed to ratify following the election of George W Bush.
Waiting until 2020 to make major cuts means those cuts will have to be far deeper and far more costly to have any hope of keeping temperatures below two degrees Celsius, Hare previously told IPS.
“The world’s collective level of ambition on emissions reductions must be substantially increased, and soon,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Various analyses show that global emissions should peak between 2015 and 2020 to earn a reasonable chance of less than two degrees Celsius at doable cost. If the peak and decline come later, the costs and risks of exceeding two degrees Celsius skyrocket.
“Powerful speeches and carefully worded decisions can’t amend the laws of physics. The atmosphere responds to one thing, and one thing only – emissions,” said Meyer.
It was clear that our governments these past two weeks listened to the carbon-intensive polluting corporations instead of listening to the people, Naidoo said in a statement.
The “Durban Platform” includes a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol that will begin January 2013, avoiding a gap at the end of the first commitment period finishing next year. The length of the second commitment period is to be decided at COP 18 in Qatar.
Developing countries insisted on this condition because Kyoto is the only legally binding emissions reduction agreement. However, it only asked for small reductions from industrialized countries like those in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan and a few others. The U.S. opted out and Canada ignored its obligations and increased emissions 24 percent. And now Canada, Japan and Russia have said they will take not take part in the second commitment period.
The continuation of Kyoto “is highly significant” said Christiana Figueres, UNFCCC Executive Secretary. Participating countries are to submit their emission reduction offers by May 2012.
There is no formal adoption of a second commitment period based on the actual wording of the documents, said Pablo Solón, former lead negotiator for the Plurinational State of Bolivia. “The actual decision has merely been postponed to the next COP.” Kyoto remains on “life support” he said.
The only progress on the Green Climate Fund (GFC) was on its design and governance. The GFC is supposed to funnel 100 billion dollars in assistance annually starting in 2020 to help developing nations to reduce emissions and help them adapt to climate change. There were no commitments on where the money would come from. What was agreed is to set up a “work plan” to mobilize significant climate funds from both private and public sources.
Private sources explicitly include carbon markets as governments from the rich countries frequently cited the financial crisis has tied their purse strings. Civil society and some developing nations noted that governments have made trillions of dollars available for the bank and financial sector and that world’s military budget is more than 10 times what is needed for the GFC.
Even though the carbon market has crashed the private sector is considered by the U.S., EU, New Zealand, Japan and other countries to be a key partner in mobilizing money for climate change. Creating private markets for the buying and selling carbon offsets remains highly controversial and very complex in terms measurement, ownership carbon in soil or forests and more. Then there the ethics of rich countries offsetting their own emissions by buying up forests or land in poor countries.
“Keep the targets lose the markets” Oscar Reyes of the Friends of the Earth UK urged negotiators in the final days of COP 17. “We’re worried that when the GCF has money it will lend it to the private sector to drive carbon markets,” Reyes told IPS.
“Durban is a disaster” for a fair and functional Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program said experts with Ecosystems Climate Alliance, a coalition of forest NGOs. REDD is by far the biggest potential carbon market.
“From looking at past conferences (climate COPs) it would be more effective if members of the conference would come outside and plant trees for the two weeks. They’d probably make a bigger impact,” said 14-year-old Felix Finkbeiner of Munich, Germany. Finkbeiner launched an organization of children called Plant for the Planet that is now working in 70 countries and have planted nearly four million trees in past four years.
Their motto: “Stop Talking. Start Planting.”