But several major signatories are refusing to expand emissions cuts when the agreement expires, writes Fiona Macleod.
South African negotiators at this week's COP18 climate change talks insisted a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol was critical for keeping runaway global greenhouse gas emissions in check.
The talks, held in Doha a year after the COP17 negotiations in Durban, are pivotal for a future world climate change agreement because the protocol ends on December 31.
Albi Modise, spokesperson for the department of environmental affairs, said one of the main outcomes of the Durban meeting last year was an agreement that a second commitment period of the protocol would come into force from January 1 2013.
"South Africa views … [that] as the cornerstone of the Doha meeting. This agreement is important to South Africa and all developing countries, and South Africa will be a lead negotiator for Africa on this issue," Modise said.
South Africa joined forces with Brazil, China and India, the other members of the powerful Basic negotiating bloc, to urge developed nations to extend the protocol and to undertake ambitious targets for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
At a high-level meeting days before the Doha talks began, environment ministers from the four Basic countries agreed that a second period of Kyoto from 2013 to 2018 was "the key deliverable for Doha". The ministers called on industrialised nations to raise their emission mitigation targets, "consistent with what is required by science and their historical responsibility".
Strengthened international climate regime
Modise said this week South Africa needed "a strengthened international climate regime" to emerge from Doha, where about 200 nations are represented at the talks.
"We are of the view that a multilateral rules-based international climate change regime is the only hope for maintaining temperature rises below 2°C."
Major economies that signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, including Russia, Japan and Canada, have refused to agree to emissions cuts after December 31. The United States never signed the protocol.
Host country Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have endorsed the extension of the protocol, which not only obliged developed nations to cut their emissions but also established global carbon-trading mechanisms. About 30 European nations and Australia have also signalled they are ready to take on new targets under Kyoto.
A second track of the agreement, dubbed the Durban Platform at the end of COP17, has seen countries start negotiating a universal post-2020 deal under which both developing and developed nations will be legally bound to emission reductions.
Modise said subsidiary bodies had advanced with this work during 2012 and a multilateral working group had been launched in Bonn in June. South African negotiators wanted the Doha talks to agree on a plan of action for this working group, so that the post-2020 deal can be adopted by 2015.
"Doha must agree on a work plan for raising the level of mitigation ambition up to 2020, and a separate work plan for the negotiation of the future post-2020 legal agreement. South Africa is of the view that COP18 is an implementation conference," he said.
"Severe impacts of climate change are already being experienced. South Africa must be in a position to undertake extensive adaptation measures, to reduce its vulnerability and build resilience."
There were unresolved political issues that needed to be cleared up at Doha, and provision had to be made to ensure mitigation commitments for developed countries that refused to sign a second term of the Kyoto Protocol.
"In addition, there must be provision for finance, technology and capacity building to support developing countries in their transition to a lower-carbon and climate-resilient society," Modise said.
Gareth Morgan, the Democratic Alliance spokesperson on the environment and a seasoned COP observer, said it was still not clear how financial pledges made at COP15 in 2009 would be met. Industrialised nations had agreed to provide $100-billion in financial support to developing countries by 2020.
"I will be watching Doha keenly to see the state of readiness of the Green Climate Fund. I expect there will be some further pledges during COP18. I would like to see some progress on finding mechanisms to track pledges and hold countries accountable."
Greenpeace Africa said that although negotiators at Doha needed to secure a second commitment period for the protocol, they had to ensure it did not "allow governments to trade their way out of real climate action". International carbon trading markets had created excess emission rights of about 13-billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) that needed to be allocated at Doha.
"In the past five years, the growth in coal use has caused over two-thirds of the increase in global CO2 emissions, pushing greenhouse gas emissions to a record high," said Fiona Musana, Greenpeace Africa's communications director.
"Africa is at the frontline of climate change and it is critical that South Africa demands urgent responsibility and action to stop the devastating impacts."
Rocketing emission levels make 2°C target increasingly unlikely
In the run-up to the COP18 climate change negotiations in Doha this week, several international reports showed greenhouse gas levels have hit record highs despite the world economic slowdown.
In its annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, the World Meteorological Organisation said atmospheric volumes of greenhouse gases blamed for climate change hit a new record of 390.9 parts per million last year - a 40% increase over pre-industrial levels in 1750, before humans began burning fossil fuels in earnest.
Although carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most significant long-lived greenhouse gas, levels of other heat-trapping gases such as methane and nitrous oxide have also climbed to record levels, according to the bulletin. "All told, the amount of excess heat prevented from escaping into outer space was 30% percent higher in 2011 than it was as recently as 1990."
Research released by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) and the European Climate Foundation indicated that, if current patterns continue, by 2020 greenhouse gas emissions could be between eight billion and 13-billion metric tonnes above what is needed to limit global warming to 2°C.
The research, done by 55 scientists from more than 20 countries, measured the gap between the pledges taken by countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and the cuts that would be needed to limit the worst effects of climate change by 2020.
"Even if the most ambitious level of commitments was implemented by all countries, and under the strictest set of rules, there will be a gap of eight gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2020," the scientists stated.
Achim Steiner, Unep's executive director, said the costs of dealing with climate change could rise by at least 10% to 15% after 2020 if emission reductions were delayed.
Estimates varied on the cost of inaction on climate change but it was projected to reach trillions of dollars. "The sobering fact remains that a transition to a low-carbon, inclusive green economy is happening far too slowly. Governments negotiating a new international climate agreement for 2020 urgently need to put their foot firmly on the action pedal," Steiner said.
Turn Down the Heat, a report commissioned by the World Bank, warned that the world is likely to warm by 3°C to 4°C by the end of the century. Extreme weather, declining food stocks, loss of ecosystems and life-threatening sea level rises will become the "new normal", affecting every region in the world.
"Without further commitments and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world is likely to warm by more than 3°C above the pre-industrial climate. Even with the current mitigation commitments fully implemented, there is roughly a 20% likelihood of exceeding 4°C by 2100. If they are not met, a warming of 4°C could occur as early as the 2060s," the report said.
Research by the International Energy Agency tracking estimates of CO2 emissions from 1971 to 2010 in more than 140 countries and regions showed that, although global emissions dipped in 2008-2009 as a result of the economic crisis, in 2010 they rose by 3.3% in industrialised countries and by 5.6% in developing countries.
Nearly two-thirds of global emissions in 2009 originated from just 10 countries, with China (23.8%) and the United States (17.7%) responsible for 41.5% of total emissions. Emissions caused by burning coal rose while emissions from oil declined, the agency said.
In its latest analysis of greenhouse gas trends in the European Union, the European Environment Agency said that the divide between rich and poor nations on the continent could deepen as poorer countries in the south were hit by spiralling costs arising from natural disasters such as flooding, storms and extreme heat waves.
The agency recorded an overall 1.3°C rise in temperature across the continent in the past decade compared to pre-industrial levels, making it the warmest period on record. Rainfall increased in northern and northwestern Europe, while southern countries were plagued by heat waves and forest fires.
South Africa's wish list
South African government negotiators are pushing for the following key outcomes:
- An agreement on a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol from January 1 2013;
- Progress in negotiations on a new legal agreement, applicable to all countries and to come into effect by 2020;
- The institutions set up in 2010 to help co-ordinate international response to climate change to be fully operational. These include the Green Climate Fund, a technology executive committee, standing committee on finance and an adaptation framework; and
- The termination of negotiations under the ad-hoc working group on long-term co-operative action, established in 2007. The work of this group has been extended three times.
- "If parties are not able to agree on the termination, it will have a negative effect on the resolution of a complex set of issues to finalise the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol," said Albi Modise, spokesperson for the department of environmental affairs.