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.