Basic puts science-based plan on table

As hopes of securing the Kyoto Protocol faded at the COP17 climate talks this week, large emerging economies united on alternative solutions.

South Africa joined China, India and Brazil (the so-called Basic countries) to propose a new framework that would focus on climate equity and sustainable development. The group of countries was a powerful lobbying force at COP17—due to end late on Friday night—providing a counterfoil to the United States and other developed nations that are opposed to continuing with Kyoto.

With negotiations deadlocked over whether there would be a second commitment period under the protocol after 2012, the Basic countries shifted the focus to a future vision.

“We are still confident that we will find a way forward, but it’s going to take a reframing of the debate,” said a South African delegate familiar with the negotiations.

An unlikely alliance of business, civil society, government, farmers and rural communities in Bavianskloof is working to restore ecosystems that hundreds of thousands of people depend upon for clean water.
The official negotiating position of the Basic group was to support a second period of Kyoto. But with the US opposed to it, Canada, Russia and Japan pulling out of the accord and the European Union proposing an alternative “road map”, the ground for consensus on a Durban deal slipped away.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon summed up the stalemate when the high-level segment of the conference began earlier this week, saying a global legally binding deal was likely to be off the table “for now”.

“Grave economic troubles in many countries” had overshadowed the negotiations, he said. He also blamed “abiding political differences and conflicting priorities and strategies for responding to climate change”.

Some commentators were still hopeful that behind-the-doors negotiations could produce a positive outcome by Friday. Possibilities included a five-year continuation of Kyoto and a road map leading to global commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions in 2020.

China injected optimism into the proceedings earlier in the week by indicating for the first time that it was willing to undertake legally binding commitments on emissions in the future, at the latest by 2020.

At the same time, leading climate change experts from the Basic group released a collaborative paper on “Equitable access to sustainable development”. It addressed ways to achieve world equity in dividing up the amount of carbon dioxide that can be released safely into the atmosphere to stave off a climate crisis.

Commissioned by ministers from the Basic countries, who have met quarterly since November 2009 to work together on issues in climate change negotiations, the paper provided a scientific argument for sharing both resources and future climate change burdens.

Limiting carbon emissions to 1 440 gigatonnes in the first half of the 21st century provided a “half-half chance” of keeping global temperature increases below the critical 2°C, the paper said. It outlined allocations of atmospheric space and how efforts to reduce emissions from current trends could be shared fairly.

This equity-based framework provided “a reference point that is not purely based on political power and willingness to pledge, but is based on what is required by science, what is good for development and what is fair”, said members of the Chinese delegation at the launch.

“It also satisfies the precondition for setting a long-term global goal for emission reductions and the means needed for sustainable development consistent with such a goal.”

The framework was discussed during technical sessions at COP17 and was expected to be elaborated on during negotiations leading up to COP18 in Qatar late next year, as well as the Rio+20 sustainable development conference in Brazil in June.

Analysts described it as the first scientific position on equity to emerge from the developing world.

“In the past, scientific literature on climate effort-sharing with concrete quantitative evaluations was dominated by research from developed countries, which led to the often-quoted reduction ranges compatible with a 2°C global pathway,” said Niklas Höhne, director of energy and climate policy at consultancy firm Ecofys in Germany.

Tom Athanasiou, director of EcoEquity, a climate think-tank, described it as a “turning point” for a “next-generation climate accord”.

Ministers from emerging economies “know the problem of equitable access to sustainable development and that it must be solved if there’s to be a successful global climate regime”, Athanasiou said.

Debates about equity, relating to both sharing carbon space and giving poorer nations time for economic development, have raged since the negotiations about a second period of Kyoto began in 2004. They were not resolved at previous global climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010.

Flanked by the other Basic environment ministers, India’s Jayanthi Natarajan said at a press briefing that equity remained at the top of her agenda for a successful outcome at COP17. India had put in an official proposal for equity to be included on the COP17 agenda, along with trade and intellectual property rights—“items left out of the Cancun agreements”, she said.

“We still want answers to these questions. The Basic countries have a small carbon footprint and they have the right to grow.”

For the latest COP17 news and special features view our special report.

Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements. She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga. An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation. She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive. She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice. Read more from Fiona Macleod


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