COP 18 running out of time but left with many issues to resolve

Durban’s COP17 last year were a big moment in climate negotiations. It created the Durban Platform, a legally-binding process for all members that will ensure countries are unified in their reduction of Greenhouse Gas emissions.

It is to be ready to sign by 2015 and to go into force in 2020. But no roadmap on how to get there was agreed on in Durban – just that it had to be done. So the next few COPs will become increasingly urgent as this hugely complex drive has to be put to paper with numbers and specific targets.

With 2015 seeming so far away observer organisations have raised concerns that any real decisions might be put off to the next COP in Poland. And until the Durban Platform comes into force there is an eight-year gap that is not covered by any agreements — the Kyoto Protocol runs out at the end of this year unless a second commitment period can be agreed upon.

A big fight has been going on over this. A draft of the new phase has been agreed on by the working group on Kyoto, and has now been sent to the ministers gathered in Doha to sign off.

The importance of Kyoto is that even though the protocol does not cover the countries doing the majority of pollution, it is seen as a test for the methods and transparency that would be needed by 2020. South Africa, as part of the Basic (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) group of countries, wants Kyoto extended.

The biggest contestation has been between European Union countries — traditionally the drivers of Kyoto — over so-called "Hot Air". This is the leftover carbon allowance that countries have under the budget (or total allowance) that they got in the first window of Kyoto.

In most cases the only reason they emitted less than was planned has been from a slump in their economies, and not measures to reduce their carbon intensity. These countries want the hot air credits to be added to their allowance under a new Kyoto period, but the majority say this is not fair.

For the rest of the delegations the big issue is one that has plagued the entire COP process — how and when will the developed world pay to assist the developing world to do so in a sustainable manner.

The Sustainable Earth Conference in Rio in 1992 had this concept at its very core, but it has since been a severe sticking point in all negotiation. In Qatar, Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary general, said, "The climate change phenomenon has been caused by the industrialisation of the developed world … It's only fair and reasonable that the developed world should bear most of the responsibility."

The Green Climate Fund, launched last year, is supposed to be one way to address this — by creating a single body to handle funds from the rich world to support a less carbon-intensive growth path elsewhere.

By 2020 it is supposed to be handing out $100-billion a year. But the fast-start fund, which was supposed to help countries with similar development from 2009 to this year has had few funds. It was supposed to get $30-billion. Delegations from the developing world, and observer missions, have said this is a clear indication of the lack of commitment in the process.

The rich world, largely led by the United States, maintains that the world has changed from Kyoto. Many countries that were poor in 1997 when it was created are now rapidly developing and have huge economies. To pay for them to develop, when their growth rate is surpassing a stagnant West, is no longer fair or possible, it says.

The last issue on the Christmas wish list — although it is one that few expect to get — is for the end of fossil fuel subsidies.

The International Energy Agency said in its recent World Energy Outlook that ⅔ of all fossil fuel reserves had to stay in the earth for global warming to stay around a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius. But the EU’s climate change commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, said that for every $1 spent on subsidising renewable energy around the world, $6 was given in subsidies to fossil fuel.

With a powerful oil lobby, especially in the United States, this seems intractable.

There’s hope even without COP: 

– The big reports warning that we are on course to push temperature increases past the 2 degrees Celsius mark all say it can still be averted if the political will is there.

– Considering the scale of a globally-binding agreement — how many other times has humanity as a whole agreed on anything — the fact that there is a plan on the table is momentous.

– Even without an accord, countries that are putting out around 80% of global emissions have made their own pledges for action. The United States said it was working on making its economy less energy intensive, and sustainable development is an integral part of China’s latest five-year plan.

– Global investment in renewables beat that for fossil fuels for the first time ever last year. Competition and a demand for technology is increasing innovation and lowering the cost of renewables, which means they are starting to reach price parity with fossil fuels. The price of solar has come down by ¾ in many markets in a couple of years. Wind energy is nearly there, especially in a country like South Africa when the full costs of coal are tallied up.

– With the bad PR that comes from damaging the environment, many corporations are embarking on sustainable paths along their entire supply chains. Business is increasingly taking the lead from stalled governments and saying that it is in everyone’s best interests to keep a world that can sustain their activities.

– Many pension funds, which are often the biggest single investors in a country, now have sustainable investment as an integral part of the process of choosing where they put this money. This is putting money into renewable technology.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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