Why COP 17 will not be easy

Monday, November 7, 2011

Pretoria - When Edna Molewa, the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, told guests last week that South Africa was like a student ready to write an exam, understandably, many were not baffled by this comparison.

Of course, the minister was referring to the country's preparation to host the upcoming climate change conference in Durban later this month. Anyone who has been through the schooling system knows the anxiety, stress and to a lesser extent the excitement that precedes a major exam.

The 17th Conference of Parties (COP 17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will be a major test not only for South Africa but for the world in general. It will test the politicians' willingness to compromise in dealing with the imminent catastrophic impacts of global warming. It will test the ordinary citizen's willingness to contribute towards a clean environment and individual's contribution towards curbing climate change.

One could even argue that if COP 15, held in Copenhagen in 2009, was tough, Durban could prove to be even more bruising for negotiators. This is because COP 17 has got to find a way of implementing most of the major decisions that were taken during COP 16 in Mexico last year. For instance under the Convention agreement a consensus was reached on a shared vision of 2 Degree Celsius temperature limit with review in 2013. As any scientist will tell you, it will require a great deal of discipline and compromise to achieve that temperature target.

Negotiators in Mexico also agreed to establish an Adaptation Committee and more importantly signatures were put on a mooted Green Climate Fund which they want to handle $ 30 billion fast start funding and this increasing to $100 billion by 2020.

And considering the urgency of the issue of climate change, many, if not all of these commitments have to find a way of being implemented after the conference in Durban and negotiators and people like Molewa are quite aware that this will not be an easy task to carry out.

Then there's a headache of the Kyoto Protocol which is set to expire next year.

The Kyoto Protocol currently places legal obligations on nations, with the exception of USA, China, India and Brazil which are not signatories to the treaty, to reduce greenhouse emissions. The countries that did sign it together account for an estimated 55% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. This has strengthened the criticism by environmentalists that the system was somehow flawed and fuelled their call that it must be revisited.

Some developed countries led by Japan and Russia, have understandably adopted a hard-line approach towards the Kyoto Protocol and are now arguing that the system is both unfair and environmentally ineffective. Small Island developing states, least developed countries and Africa, including SA, also assert that the current system is ineffective.

To add to the dilemma is that several of the nations that actually signed on the agreement have admitted they probably will not be able to make good on their promises.

But many seem to be in agreement that the contract should be renewed beyond 2012 albeit with stricter terms and conditions and hopefully getting the biggest climate sinners to sign too. While the Kyoto Protocol alone will not cause enough change to stop global warming caused by increased amounts of greenhouses gases, analysts describe it as a good first step in curbing such emissions.

However, it is not only what Cancun agreed on that will either make of break Durban, but also what politicians failed to settle on in Mexico.

Cancun for instance did not address key equity related political questions such as the legal form of the Kyoto Protocol and how to ensure its continuation without disadvantaging poor nations that still need to grow their economies. Heads of State also failed to agree on a single treaty type legally binding outcome, a long term global emission reduction goal and upfront common carbon accounting rules. There was also no compromise on issues of fair share of carbon space or sufficient time for developing countries to change to cleaner forms of energy without jeopardising their development obligations.

Failure by Cancun to agree on these crucial political issues meant that the matters were all shifted to Durban with the hope that with time leaders would be able to find a common ground. All this has led to a great deal of scepticism and as expected there are interesting emerging paradigms towards Durban talks.

Vulnerable countries led by Africa now demand that a new climate regime must be a legal obligation on all countries, to ensure, they say, mitigation of emissions and formation of a comprehensive international adaptation to support poor nations. This bloc also wants assurances on financial, technological and capacity building support from developed countries.

Contrary the view, the United States of America, Japan and Russia want non-legally binding decisions, due to USA domestic politics preventing them entering any legally binding outcome at the moment.

There's also the aggressive reluctance of China, Japan and Russia to move without the US. And back to Molewa's comparison, South Africa and indeed the world is faced with a choice here, either to pass or fail the exam and any self-respecting student would most likely prefer the former.