/ 30 September 2011

At the global climate change conference

Is COP17’s jargon and the technicalities of the various issues confusing you? Yolandi Groenewald‘s guide to the climate change negotiations will help you steer your way through it like a greenhouse gas expert.

What is COP17?
The 17th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, better known as COP17, will once again try to establish a legally binding agreement to combat climate change through multilateral negotiations.

Who will be there?
Every year 195 nations come together to discuss ways to cut greenhouse gasses to reduce climate change. It is a painstaking process and fiendishly complex. The current negotiations have been going on for 17 years and the only legally binding agreement it has spawned is the Kyoto Protocol — in 1997.

Why greenhouse emissions?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, comprising esteemed scientists tasked to study the effects of climate change, has concluded that there is no longer any doubt that climate change is real. Their reports suggest that this change is caused by human activities — primarily the burning of fossil fuels and land-based activities such as deforestation. The change will ultimately lead to extreme weather, the changing of rain patterns, melting of glaciers and rising sea levels.

So why can’t the nations agree?
It is all about money. Developed nations such as the United States, Canada, the European nations, Japan and Australia grew their economies largely as a result of burning fossil fuels to power their economies during the past 100 years. It left the planet with its current carbon crisis and these nations were told to cap their emissions in the Kyoto Protocol. But what about developing countries such as China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa? They also need to grow their economies and many still use fossil fuels.

Their big argument is that the developed world has had its chance and so the developing world should also get the chance to use fossil fuels to grow. But the reality is that China is already a bigger emitter of greenhouse gasses than the US, and if the Chinese do not reduce their carbon footprint the planet is in trouble. At the same time the US and countries such as Japan and Canada do not want to commit to too stringent caps because it will kill their economies, leaving China with a huge trade advantage. So every nation is waiting for the others to blink first.

Why did Copenhagen fail?
Copenhagen was touted as the conference where a legal binding agreement would be reached that would tell each nation by how much it would have to cap its emissions. But in the end political pressure was too much and the differences between the nations too big to overcome. Leaked texts and a lack of progress culminated in a last night of high drama, with heads of states being shouted at by negotiators.

This resulted in the heads of state, including US President Barack Obama, meeting in the early hours of the morning to thrash out some kind of agreement to give the world. But the result, the much-criticised Copenhagen Accord, created a great deal of mistrust among the nations, which had to be rebuilt at COP16 in Cancun last year. The Copenhagen Accord was never incorporated into the official UN process.

Why should we care?
Research shows that South Africa, especially its agriculture sector, will have to deal with climate change. The National Climate Change Response green paper acknowledges that the South African government “regards climate change as one of the greatest threats to sustainable development”. But South Africa, with an economy that is 90% driven by coal, has a huge stake in the negotiations. When a legally binding agreement is signed, South Africa will have to reduce its carbon footprint dramatically by investing in renewable energy resources, which will affect every South African in one way or another.

Why is South Africa the host?
Throughout the negotiations, but especially since 2005, South Africa has emerged as an important role player in the negotiations, with the country’s team regularly punching above its weight to keep the negotiations going and acting as a bridge builder between the developing and developed world. Because of this reputation South Africa was given the chance to host the conference and in its role as president of the gathering it will once again be expected to get players talking as well as steer the process.

The negotiating groups

These groups are incestuous and sometimes plain nonsensical, but during the negotiations friends are crucial.

G77 and China: This big negotiating group is a loose coalition of developing nations, designed to promote its members’ collective economic interests and create an enhanced joint negotiating capacity in the United Nation. But its interests, as it relates to climate change, are so diverse that it sometimes seems cohesion within the group is impossible. It includes countries such as the small island states that are threatened with flooding because of climate change, Saudi Arabia, which will lose income if the use of fossil fuels is reduced, Brazil and China, which are dependent on fossil fuels to grow their economies, and wealthy states such South Korea.

The African Union: This group puts forward Africa’s position, especially on mitigation issues, and will be a strong voice to shape negotiations. The Umbrella Group: This group is often seen as an obstacle to negotiations. It is a loose coalition of non-European Union (EU) developed countries that formed after the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Although there is no formal list, the group is generally made up of Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Russian Federation, Ukraine and the United States (though the US is not as active as the others in the coalition). They are frequently under fire from non-governmental organisations for stalling negotiations.

Basic: Made up of Brazil, South Africa, India and China, Basic rose to prominence at the Copenhagen negotiations and speaks for the more “developed” developing countries that are under pressure from the US and the Umbrella Group to cap their emissions dramatically.

Least Developed Countries: The 50 countries defined in this group have become increasingly active in the climate change process, often working together to promote their interests.

Aosis: The Alliance of Small Island States consists of 43 low-lying and small island countries that are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise. Often called the conscience of the negotiations, their survival is threatened. They were the first to propose a draft text during the Kyoto Protocol negotiations calling for cuts in carbon dioxide emissions of 20% from 1990 levels by 2005.

What are the main issues?

This is about making aid available to vulnerable nations to cope with climate change, and about how much should go where. It is also about who will administer the money that will flow to poor countries. Although billions of dollars have been pledged, nothing has been signed yet. Another issue is that of oil-producing countries, which want some form of compensation for the loss of income in a world weaning itself off its fossil-fuel diet.

Mitigation is the most difficult of all the negotiating issues as it deals with every country’s economy. Under this banner, nations negotiate about how to share the burden of reducing greenhouse gases and simultaneously trying to grow their economies sustainably. South Africa’s green paper reaffirms its commitment in Copenhagen for its greenhouse gas emissions to rise by 34% by 2020 and peak at a 42% rise by 2025 and then begin to decline from 2036 onwards. This is conditional on the necessary finance, technology and support from the international community. If a legally binding agreement is reached, nations will have to commit on how and by how much to cut their emissions. Fairness is at the heart of the debate.

Carbon market
The carbon market is a “flexibility mechanism” associated with the Kyoto Protocol that enables polluters in rich countries to buy carbon credits to help them to manage their carbon caps. If a polluter knows it is going to exceed its cap, it can buy credits from another polluter to comply with the caps imposed. The carbon market clean development mechanism (CDM) allows emission reduction projects in developing countries to create credits that can be sold. The joint implementation is similar to the CDM, but operates between developed countries only. International emissions trading allows countries that are below their Kyoto Protocol emission levels to sell their “surplus” emission credits to developed countries for them to meet their targets.

Technology transfer
Technology that combats climate change and helps nations adapt to climate change is growing rapidly but is centred largely in rich countries and in the hands of private businesses. This makes it expensive for the developing world to get access to. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change wants to overcome this by requiring developed parties to facilitate and finance the transfer of clean technology to developing countries, but businesses are reluctant to part with hard-won intellectual property. Last year the UN decided to set up a technology executive committee, a climate technology centre and a network. But there are no details.

Every day an area the size of between 30 000 and 70 000 football fields of forest is cleared globally. This significantly contributes to the increase in greenhouse gases. The Cancun agreements gave formal backing to reducing emissions from deforestation but postponed many key decisions to Durban. As it stands now, nations have to reduce emissions from forest degradation, conserve and enhance forest carbon stocks, and manage forests sustainably.

Essentially, rich countries will pay poorer nations not to chop down forests and so lock up carbon emissions. But the agreement skirted the issue of whether deforestation should be included in a carbon market mechanism. Some critics argue a carbon mechanism would allow developed countries to meet their mitigation obligations by buying cheap credits instead of cutting emissions seriously themselves.

This article was amended on October 03 2011. The original said COP17 stands for 17th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This has been corrected.