Rays of hope at COP17

The usually unflappable Christiana Figueres, the United Nations’s leader at COP17, shed a few tears when asked at an informal briefing this week what kind of world she would like to leave for children. It was a poignant moment, and the feeling was being shared by many of the delegates at the talks.

The science is clear: even if Durban delivers a second round of carbon-cutting commitments under the Kyoto Protocol and everyone at the conference agrees this is not going to happen, climate change will accelerate. As if to emphasise that prediction the heavens opened over Durban on the eve of the talks, causing floods that killed six people.

In the air-conditioned halls of the conference centre country representatives squabbled about who should be blamed for atmospheric pollution. Should the rich nations that have benefited from 200 years of industrialisation be held responsible or should rapidly growing economies also account for their present and future contributions to the carbon overload?

And who should pay for the damage? Despite billion-euro pledges to the Green Climate Fund, many Western nations prefer bilateral adaptation arrangements. When the United States, Saudi Arabia and some Latin American countries voiced reservations on Wednesday evening about signing off on the fund, there was a collective fear that this crucial Durban deliverable would join the Kyoto extension on the scrapheap.

Among the dark clouds were rays of hope. There was progress on using international shipping taxes to fund climate action, expo halls proudly displayed countries’ efforts to green their economies, civil society demonstrated that it was taking climate change seriously and leaders with substantial moral credibility derived in the struggle against apartheid called for action. Some deals will be made in Durban, but they will not be the globally binding deals we really need.


When ministers arrive next week for the political negotiations, however, they need to map a clear path to durable solutions. The moral burden on rich countries to bear the brunt of change is clear, so is the practical need for a solution that addresses big developing world polluters like China, India and South Africa. If the parcel is passed again, we will know exactly who to blame.

Read the first editorial “Putting men and laws in their place”

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

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