Durban: some progress, vastly outpaced by global warming

COP 17 concluded its work in Durban one week ago and observers of the UNFCCC negotiation meeting are divided between those who see the glass half empty and those focused on the part half full.

Good progress was achieved in the implementation of the Green Climate Fund, the transfer of technology and in the fight against deforestation through the REDD+ (Reduction Emission from Deforestation and Forest Degradation).
World-wide attention is however dedicated to the topic of mitigation. Which country needs to reduce its national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, by how much and when: these are the crucial questions still unresolved.
But even on this issue Durban produced very important results.
Ahead of the COP 17 very few experts thought that the Kyoto Protocol (KP), the only existing international legally binding agreement on climate change, would survive beyond, when its first commitment period runs out.
The EU decided to commit to a second period no matter what other developed countries, such as Japan and Russia, will decide for the period after 2012.
Canada’s opposition to the KP was the most clear-cut, having announced its intention to abandon even the KP’s first commitment period. This is only the latest step of Prime Minister Steven Harper’s strategy to renounce any commitment on climate change in exchange for the support of the oil lobby, based mainly in the Alberta Province. Harper’s weakness and lack of political will erode in the long term his predecessor’s reduction commitment of -6%, as defined in the previous KP accord, and the actual national GHG emission level of +30% (data UNFCCC, 2009).
The EU’s willingness to extend its participation for the second commitment period created a bridge between Europe and the majority of developing countries, including the African Group, the Alliance of Small Islands States and the Less Developed Countries: they were all crucial in drafting one of the most important achievements of the COP 17, i.e., the Durban Platform (DP). The DP is a three-year track aimed at defining mandatory emission targets for all major GHG emitters, including the US and China. The new commitment will be part of a new mandatory agreement, whose legal form has not yet been defined, but should be in place by 2020.
From this perspective, the COP17′s results point undoubtedly to a “glass half full,” but any elation is mitigated by the bad news arriving from climate science. A recent study published in the magazine Nature shows a continuous decline in the arctic ice extension in the last decades.
IEA (International Energy Agency) data show that 2010, with global emissions in the atmosphere at 30,6 billion tonnes of CO2, topped all previous records.
Further, data on temperature will almost certainly indicate that 2011 was one of the warmest years since the beginning of physical record-keeping.
But what is probably even more worrying to climate scientists is the status of the permafrost in the Arctic area. This is one of the most important tipping points, a situation where change does not move in a linear way, but rather resembles a switch where, within in a short time, the position can pass from “off” to “on.” If the permafrost, a land area constantly frozen throughout the year and which extends also into the coastal seabed, melts, all the gases trapped therein will be quickly released into the atmosphere. A Russian study presented a few days ago at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco indicated the existence of huge amounts of methane gas bubbling to the surface of the ocean, a phenomenon never registered in the previous 20 years of research in the area.
A study presented in 2010 by the same group estimated an amount of methane emissions from this area of about 8 million tonnes a year, but now it seems clear that the emissions are underestimated. The situation is particularly critical if we take into consideration that methane is 25 times more damaging for climate change than CO2 and this figure is higher than the entire emission of a country like the Netherlands.
Rethinking the outcome of Durban after these latest news, it becomes clear that the glass is always completely empty when we compare the speed of progress in the political process with the rate of change of climate conditions.

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Decision time in Durban, outcome as yet unclear

The 9th of December will be remembered as an historical date for the fight against climate change–either for the better or for the worse. The choice lies fully in the hands of ministers and heads of state involved today, and probably tonight, in the final plenary of the COP 17 in Durban and in the decision whether to save the Kyoto Protocol (KP) and the rest of the UN multilateral process or to simply let the KP expire.

Less than 24 hours before the end of the Durban Conference, it would appear that a large majority of countries is in favour of the II Commitment period of the KP and of a further legally binding commitment meant to involve a larger number of countries and emissions controls than the KP. But it is as yet unclear if this can be turned into a consensus-based decision valid for all.
Annie Petsonk, the representative of the NGO Environmental Defence Fund, identifies three possible options for the legal form a new commitment might take.
– The first one, very similar to the EU proposal, is a new Protocol with negotiations starting next year and to be adopted by COP 20 (2014) or by COP 21 (2015).
– The second one is a legally binding instrument, less stringent than the Protocol, without any timetable to conclude the work: this proposal is close to the US position.
– The last one, and the weakest, would involve simply a decision about the next steps: this option appears as the least likely, as it would signify the failure of the multilateral process.

Negotiations continued during the night of 8 December and from the delegates there is positive feedback for an agreement and even rumours of new margins for Russia and Japan to be part of the II Commitment period of the KP.
Karl Hodd, Grenada’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Chair of AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States), reminded everyone of the reason for this meeting during his Thursday speech in the High Level section. “We must lift our sights and not let national interest overtake global interests. I want to challenge you today to demonstrate to the world over the next few days that we have that political will.” He also warned participants to behave in an honourable way: “Let us not speak one thing outside the negotiating room and another inside the room.” Another AOSIS country, Fiji, asked all parties to support a stronger commitment. Samuela Saumatua, Minister for local government, urban development, housing and environment of the island, remarked that “Durban presents a unique chance to renew faith in the multilateral process.”
Hodd used less diplomatic language during the AOSIS press conference, underlining that “there is not enough seriousness in this negotiation,” adding: “if we believe there is a problem on the planet, why don’t we address it?”
This is a feeling shared by many participants. During the same press conference, Saumatua said that in Fiji “we have to relocate people due to costal erosion. It is not a fairy tale, it is reality.” References to the very real consequences of climate change come from several other countries, including the Maldives, Tuvalu, Iceland, Venezuela, Papua New Guinea and Iraq. Most of the speeches in the High Level section sent a clear message: stop the talking and start acting. Soon.
Hood pointed out that scientists are asking for decisive action before 2017 and that there is no point in postponing pledges until after 2020: “We totally reject the hypothesis of 2020. Waiting is a disaster.”
Venezuela used its time to link global warming to capitalist economies. “The market is the problem, not the solution,” said Claudia Salerno Caldera, the special envoy for Climate Change. She repeated what Hugo Chavez said in Copenhagen two years ago. “If climate change had been a bank it would already have been saved…; it is not possible to have money to save the banks and pay for wars but not for climate change and for life”, she said, receiving a loud round of applause.
The urgent plight of some countries was summarized thus by Amberoti Nikora, the Minister of the Environment of Kiribati, a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean: “I hope you’ll have the opportunity to visit my country and to see our children before it is too late.”

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Political progress registered, but China and US may be undermining EU goals


“The USA is blocking, blocking, blocking!” The assessment of Tim Gore, the Oxfam representative, during yesterday’s NGO press conference is quite clear. His request that the EU and the developing countries move forward in any case, even if the US do not, resembles events at the COP 15 in Bali. In 2007 it was Al Gore who put forward a similar demand, echoed during the final plenary session by Kevin Conrad, the Special Envoy and Ambassador for Environment & Climate Change of Papua New Guinea. The roar of approval in the assembly forced the US to accept the Bali Road Map.

It now seems possible that the same script will play out next Friday night in order to launch the 3-year Durban Road Map proposed by the EU.

The first target in Durban is undoubtedly the need to assure a future to the Kyoto Protocol (KP) through the II commitment period, beyond 2012. But the second goal seems to be the need to find a way to involve the US, which in political terms stands on tenuous ground. Everyone knows that it is very difficult to negotiate with a government that seems unable to impose to its own Senate the ratification of any agreement.

Yesterday there was a bilateral meeting between China and the US, probably crucial for the development of the COP 17. No official statement was issued.

But the previous day, Minister Xie Zhenhua, the Head of the Chinese Delegation, had sent an indirect message, almost certainly meant for US negotiators: “It is time to see who is acting in a responsible way to solve a common challenge for the human race.”

Rumours circulated by Greenpeace suggest an agreement between China and the US to postpone the deadline of a new global deal until after 2015, the date on which the EU is instead insisting as a condition for it to subscribe to a second KP commitment period. The situation is further complicated by China’s announcement to be ready for a legally binding agreement, without clearly specifying whether this means Beijing’s acceptance of the year 2020 as a deadline for the introduction of its own absolute mitigation target.

At the same time, the uncertainty and the shifting of political positions might be interpreted as a positive sign, showing that negotiations are having an effect on the original positions of the parties involved.

In the meanwhile, progress is being reported on financing issues as the idea to collect funds for developing countries from taxation of international aviation and shipping is gaining ground and could be one of the Durban conference’s positive results.

Growing attention is also being given to Mexico’s and Papua New Guinea’s proposal for the introduction of a threefourths majority voting for the COP decisions. What could be seen as a simple procedural aspect may became one of the most interesting outcomes of the COP and facilitate the future of the Durban Road Map.

Decisions needed as leaders arrive in Durban for COP’s second week


The Conference of the Parties (COP) 17 enters its the last week of negotiations with the High Level session starting tomorrow afternoon and might be  useful to identify which are the most important topics under discussion.


Some positive results are expected  regarding technology transfer, a crucial issue in facilitating a more sustainable development path for developing countries.


Copenhagen and Cancun had outlined a financing mechanism, the Green Climate Fund, capable of supporting adaptation and mitigation to help in particular the less developed countries. It foresaw a three-year period (2010-2012) of fast tracking  $10 billion per year, to be increased up to $100 billion by 2020.


Christiana Figueres,  the UNFCCC Executive Secretary, underlined last Friday during a press conference that  there has so far been no decision on how that figure will be reached. She also pointed out that already last year the High Level financing panel set up by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had highlighted the need for “a combination of traditional and innovative sources of finances.”


Financing is needed as well to support the REDD mechanism (Reduction Emission from Deforestation and Degradation). In this field some problems have been raised by Brazil, which does not appear willing to accept a regime of international reporting of how safeguards in REDD will be addressed and respected.


But mitigation remains the main point for which a political solution must be found by the 12 Chiefs of State and 130 Ministers starting to arrive in Durban already this afternoon..


It is no longer possible to postpone a decision about the future of the Kyoto Protocol (KP) because its first commitment period expires at the end of 2012. Linked with the destiny of the KP is the decision on how to forge a new broader international pact, to include the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of all major emitters actually under discussion in the Long Cooperative Action (LCA).


The most concrete proposal submitted up to  now is the one prepared by the EU. With the public refusal on the part of Japan, Russia and Canada to be part of the II commitment period, the EU becomes the main mover in favour of the KP survival.


This allows the EU to lay down its own conditions to save the only existing, legally binding accord, i.e., the KP, still crucial for all developing countries. Figueres is aware that the EU will accept to support the KP’s renewal “only under certain conditions,” spelled out last Friday by Thomasz Chrusczow, representing the Polish EU Presidency: “it is necessary that the new pact include 100% of the global emissions.”


He asked for a kind of “Durban Road map,” a three-year negotiating process in order to finalize a full and global agreement by 2015 which should then become operative before 2020. Chrusczow’s request to base this new process on the same principles as the Bali Road map and the Cancun agreement indirectly confirms the failure of the COP 15 in Copenhagen and the entirely unsuccessful Rasmussen COP 15 Presidency. The evidence is that it is now necessary to restart the process for a new legally binding agreement.


But the international situation has radically changed from that prevailing at the time of the 2007 Bali conference and even more with respect to 1992, when the UNFCCC was signed. For Artur Runge Metzer, of the EU Commission, it is therefore no longer possible to base a future agreement only on historical responsibility. “We are aware of our historical responsibility, but this is not enough. If we shut down the EU tomorrow or next Saturday as result of the COP 17, we don’t save the climate. Others have to come on board”.


The message is clearly directed at the USA, increasingly absent from the negotiation process, as shown by the vague answer of the Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change,


Jonathan Pershing, during last week’s press conference and by the US attempt to postpone the new negotiation process until after 2020. The indirect answer comes from Keya Chatterjee, representative of WWF US. She urged her national delegation to keep  in mind this year’s  climatic events in the U.S., where for the first time 47 States had to declare a state of emergency because of  weather-related disasters.


But the EU message is meant also for the emerging economies, considering their increasing contribution to total GHG emissions. Chrusczow did however specify that it is necessary to differentiate between various national conditions because China, the main global emitter, has a value per habitant of 6 tons of CO2, while India’s is well below 2.


Srinivas Krishnaswamy, of the NGO CAN South Asia, is asking for a more leading role of the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China). They are already part of the G77+China group, but Krishnaswamy notes that they are increasingly behaving as an official negotiating group. This could be interpreted as a natural evolution of the developing countries’ block characterized by growing differences among them in terms of interest in the oil economy, level of development and direct hardship due to climate change-related consequences. To the group belong countries as different as Saudi Arabia, China, Tuvalu and Bangladesh.


There is finally another important point that may be on the discussion table in the days to come. It is the proposal presented by Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Mexico at the beginning of last week and already introduced in a less strong way by PNG at the Copenhagen conference. The proposal is to move the current consensus-based decision-making process towards a qualified majority approach. According to informal rumors, there is growing sympathy for this proposal, despite the opposition of some important parties. If nothing else this would force clarification of the meaning of “consensus,” often left to the interpretation of the COP Presidency, and speed up the decision process, considering that climate change will not wait for the conclusion of the long political debate.

EU showing leadership in Durban


“The time to act is now!” For Artur Runge Metzer, the EU Commission representative, postponing a decision in Durban only means deferring inevitable costs and climate-related consequences, and probably missing the chance to maintain the growth of the global temperature below the important 2°C mark.

Runge Metzer indicated yesterday, during the daily press conference, that the EU is willing to take on the leadership in the current negotiation process and outlined which points need to be solved in order to achieve a positive outcome at the Conference of the Parties (COP) 17.

The most critical issue is the one related to mitigation, actually on the table in the double track of the Kyoto Protocol (KP) and Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA).

Specifying that “it is still under discussion if the second commitment period of the KP will be of 5 or 8 years,” Runge Metzer confirmed that the EU is in favor of a second commitment period. This is essential both to maintain the internal carbon market and to build a legally binding bridge in direction of a future global agreement by 2015. What he asked other developed countries is to show more ambition in terms of their respective national reduction targets in order to close the large existing gap between the pledges declared in Copenhagen and Cancun and the requirements of the scientific community.

Secondly, said Runge Metzer, it is necessary to agree on the global peak of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to be achieved before 2020, with the consequent commitment by all countries to reduce the overall quantity of emissions after that date.

Thirdly, there is the need to build up a renewed market mechanism, capable of capturing the big emissions reduction potential of the developing countries.

Finally, it is necessary to address the aircraft and marine emissions and to launch a new program for the agricultural sector.

The recent United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report confirms the possibility of meeting the existing cap with the reduction targets requested by scientist before 2020 using existing technology, working with energy efficiency, renewable energy and at the sectorial level.


That is what is possible. Now politicians have to show the will to do it.

Canada announces withdrawal from Kyoto pact


In 2007, during the 14th Conference of the Parties (COP 14), Australia surprised  the world positively with the decision of  Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to ratify the Kyoto Protocol (KP)–a decision encouraged by the worst drought to afflict Australia in the last century. This emergency went a long way in radically changing people’s awareness of climate change in a country which until then had given it barely a thought.

November 27 the Canadian government shocked the 195 countries present at the COP 17 in Durban with the announcement that next month it would unilaterally withdraw from the KP.

The current climatic conditions in Canada, where they are experiencing  an unusually warm autumn, are preventing  people in north America from perceiving the climate changes feared  by those who live in the warmer parts of the world. But the main reason behind the Canadian Conservative government’s decision to withdraw from the KP is related to the oil lobby. Alberta, the home of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is responsible for the main GHG  national emissions due to the large use of coal and,  in particular, of oil sand production, as  described aptly by William Marsden in “Stupid to the last drop.”

These  different national positions are revealing the reality of the UNFCCC process. On the one hand we have countries being directly affected by the cost of climate change. They are mainly developing countries, but increasingly also developed nations located in warmer parts of the world.  Until now this has meant Australia, but it will probably soon also include  countries in  southern Europe.

On the other side stand those  lucky enough to live in  more favourable climates, such as Russia,  which does not want to have any limitation on its use (and often waste) of energy.  Canada stands as a prime example for both positions. The official communication, as reported by on 27 November, to withdraw from the KP comes as a rude shock just as the COP 17 gets under way and  will have undoubtedly serious consequences for the negotiation process.

Durban COP opens, tactical posturing begins


stampa durbanThe 17th Conference of the Parties (COP) opened yesterday in Durban. From 28 November until 9 December delegations from 190 countries will try to work out a new global agreement on climate change.

But what can the average reader really understand about climate issues when he faces abstruse technical matters and dozens of incomprehensible acronyms such LULUCF, REDD, KP, LCA, SBSTA, SBI.

In these two weeks, PlanetNext will try to make intelligible to its readers the complexity of these crucial global negotiations.

The meeting’s agenda, as always, is intense: mitigation (reduction) of emissions, combating deforestation, funding mechanisms and technology transfer for developing countries, and last but not least the issue of adapting to the current climate, which is already showing significant changes in most parts of the planet.

Beyond the individual chapters, the real protagonist of the COP 17 is the Kyoto Protocol (KP), to date the only binding instrument on climate worldwide. A protocol that was adopted in 1997, came into force on 16 February 2005 and will expire next year.

In Durban the Parties will have to decide whether to extend the deadlines or let the protocol elapse. The developing countries and the UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, have launched an appeal for an extension.

At the moment 191 states have signed and ratified the KP. The only remaining signatory not to have ratified the protocol is the United States. (Afghanistan, Andorra and South Sudan have neither signed on nor ratified, whereas Somalia ratified on 26 July 2010.)

The fact that the U.S. has so far withheld ratification of the KP is strengthening the misgivings on the part of the developed countries gathered in the so-called Umbrella Group (among them Australia, Canada and Russia), which now advocate a single international agreement (LCA), able to include major emerging economies such as Brazil, China and India. The latter, however, appear diffident toward any discussion of mitigation, regardless of which countries would be involved. They are afraid to be lured into climate-related agreements that would limit the scope for their own future development and for poverty reduction targets.

A possible solution may be provided by the proposal launched by the European Union at the opening of the Durban COP. The EU stated that it is committed to reaching an agreement on the extension of the KP, with the further aim to create a transitional mechanism of binding instruments, to be finalized by 2015 and requiring stricter commitments ffrom a larger number of countries. In this context, although not explicitly stated by UE, the intention is to convince and include the major emerging economies and the U.S..

The watchword for the KP in Durban could be “limited commitment period II.” But the games have just started!

Photo: Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, President of COP 17 by UNclimatechange