/ 28 November 2011

‘Last-ditch’ UN climate talks kick off at COP17 in Durban

The world’s nations on Monday begin their last-ditch effort to save a dying Kyoto Protocol at the United Nations’ global climate talks in Durban, aimed at cutting the greenhouse gas emissions blamed by scientists for rising sea levels, intense storms and crop failures.

Delegates started arriving into South Africa last week for what is formally known as the 17th Conference of Parties (COP17) to the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The department of home affairs said 11 810 delegates had been approved to come to South Africa for the conference, including several heads of state and government, ministers, UN officials, members of civil society and journalists.

The summit is scheduled to run until December 9.

Last chance saloon
The Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997 and entered into force in 2005, commits most developed states to binding emissions targets. The Durban talks are the last chance to set another round of targets before the first commitment period ends in 2012.

But the debt crisis hitting the eurozone and the United States makes it unlikely those areas will provide more aid or impose new measures that could hurt their growth prospects.

Envoys said there may be a political deal struck with a new set of binding targets, but only the European Union, New Zealand, Australia, Norway and Switzerland are likely to sign up at best. Any accord depends on China and the United States, the world’s top emitters, agreeing binding action under a wider deal by 2015, something both have resisted for years.

China is unwilling to make any commitments until Washington does while Russia, Japan and Canada say they will not sign up to a second commitment period unless the biggest emitters do too.

Beating expectations
But organisers have denied that negotiators are going in with low expectations. “If anybody talks about low expectations for Durban that’s because they don’t understand the complexity of what stands before governments,” said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Speaking at a media briefing on the eve of COP17, Figueres said the negotiations are “nothing short of the most compelling energy, industrial, behavioural, revolution that humanity has ever seen”.

“This is not about just an environmental agreement, this is not a trade agreement. What is being laid here are the foundations for a revolution in every sense of the world,” she said.

Figueres said that the negotiations were very complex and the decisions made at COP17 would revolutionise every aspect of life, from communications and transport to production and consumerism.

“There is barely a sector that has a human component that is not being touched by these discussions. So if anybody says there are low expectations, they do not understand the complexity,” she said.

No guarantee of agreement
However, she admitted that there was no guarantee that an agreement would be reached this year. “COPs are always very challenging and so they should be. If it were easy, we would have done it years ago,” she said.

Figueres said there was a serious backdrop to the negotiations this year as scientific bodies have been reporting record levels of greenhouse gas emissions and an increase in extreme weather events. “Scientific reports show we must increase our action,” she said.

One of the issues that will take centre stage at this year’s COP is the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, which represents the only legally binding agreement on reducing carbon emissions that developed country governments have ratified.

The commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol comes to an end in 2012 and nations must now decide whether to add a second commitment period. A number of developed countries have rejected the idea of a second period but climate change activists say this would be stymie attempts to curb further global warming.

Figueres said this debate is the most difficult issue that faces governments at this point in the negotiations. Despite the naysayers, Figueres said she believes there will be a “very serious effort” to move into a second commitment period.

Negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol are expected to kick into high gear in the second week of the conference, when ministers from various countries arrive to take part in high level, political discussions.

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