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Durban Climate Talks to Aim for Pragmatic Results

The annual United Nations meeting to assess progress in dealing with climate change convenes in Durban, South Africa, next week. The meeting is known formally as the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 7th Session of the Conference of the Parties serving as...

The annual United Nations meeting to assess progress in dealing with climate change convenes in Durban, South Africa, next week. The meeting is known formally as the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 7th Session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties (CMP7) to the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement that sets binding targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by developed nations. Thousands of delegates from governments to observer organizations will be present.  COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 was attended by 24,000 delegates. COP16/CMP6 in Cancun last year had around 12,000.

National Geographic News Watch contributor Leon Marshall is attending the meeting in Durban, a resort city on South Africa’s subtropical eastern coast and one of the continent’s busiest ports. Here he sums up the major issues going into COP17, including profound skepticism that the gabfest will produce any concrete action to adapt, slow, halt, or reverse activities contributing to climate change. The host country, however, is determined that COP17 will be productive, and that Africa will lead the way.

By Leon Marshall

Durban, South Africa–Hopes of binding nations into firm carbon-emission reductions have made way for what appears to be a notably more pragmatic approach in the run-up to the end-of-year COP17 climate talks in South Africa’s major port city of Durban.

There have been indications of such a shift on the international front, mainly in the form of less intractable positions adopted by the various sides. But it has been most noticeable in the attitude adopted by the government of South Africa which has since the beginning of the year been running a mounting public awareness campaign aimed at the local and international community.

Ministers of various state departments, in particular those of water and environmental affairs, and of international relations, have repeatedly said that as the host country South Africa would like this time to see a positive outcome.  There has even been a special train, sponsored by government, business, the British Council, and the German embassy, going round the country to drum up popular support.

The attitude, most likely helped along by this year’s preceding rounds of international preparatory meetings, seems to be that rather than getting bogged down in the usual recriminations between the developed and developing world and the tug-of-war between America and China, this 17th conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, originally adopted in Rio de Janeiro back in 1992, should build on that which is attainable.

It is hoped that the Kyoto Protocol can still be kept alive, even if in reduced form, beyond its first commitment period that expires next year. Its carbon cap-and-trade system and its clean development mechanism that allows businesses in its industrialized member states to offset their emissions by financing environmentally friendly developments in developing countries offer a valuable framework for possible wider use in future.

The new sense of pragmatism seems to suggest that it is no use chasing after grand treaties. The global economic crisis is partly responsible. It is hugely distracting and it has made it extremely unlikely that any of the countries would like to commit to anything that might put a further strain on their economies and their overdrawn budgets.

South Africa is by far the biggest greenhouse-gas emitter on the African continent and is 16th on the international list. Already drawing on its vast coal deposits for most of its electricity generation, it is in the process of building two more coal-fired power stations. This has elicited scathing criticism from environmental organizations and climatologists.

But the country’s government has promised to reduce its greenhouse gases by 34 percent by 2020. By 2030 it wants 42 percent of its new power generation to come from renewable sources. To this end it has started a project to have a million solar heaters installed by 2015.



Carbon spewer ... one of the big coal-fired power stations South Africa relies on for the bulk of its electricity. Photo by Leon Marshall.


The country’s electricity-supply utility, Eskom, is making major efforts to promote energy efficiency, which it sees as the quickest and most efficient way of keeping carbon emissions in check. It has spearheaded the free distribution of energy-efficient light bulbs. It is a major sponsor of awards to individuals, schools and other institutions, and companies for innovative energy-saving schemes. It is also playing its part in developing sustainable-energy sources such as solar photovoltaic plants and wind farms.

The Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), a state agency, has made the green economy one of the priority sectors of its funding program, promising to invest R22.4-billion (US$2.8-billion) in green industries over the next five years.

The practical approach of making green development grow with the economy has been enunciated by Edna Molewa, South Africa’s Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, who said: “The South African government is committed to addressing the global threat of climate change, but this will not come at the cost of growing the economy, creating jobs or boosting international competitiveness … The public discourse among business, environmental activists and other stakeholders should reflect a cognisance that the goals of creating jobs, developing infrastructure and preserving our natural resources are not at odds and the conservation of the environment and economic development are not mutually exclusive.”

The change towards less ambitious results will come as no comfort to scientists, many of whom fear that nothing that has been done so far, or which is being envisioned, has much chance of stemming catastrophic climate change.

Professor William Rees of Canada’s British Columbia University and co-author of the Ecological Footprint which measures Earth’s carrying capacity against humankind’s presssures, flatly told a meeting of the Rome-based Greenaccord environmental movement that he had little hope of anything positive coming out of COP17: “There will be no progress until hundreds of thousands march in the streets. At the moment governments feel quite safe about the way they are acting,” he said.

Neither will anything short of drastic action be cause for comfort for the island states and low-level countries like Bangladesh that find themselves desperately vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Part of the reappraisal now underway is indeed why there is this disconnect between what the scientists are seeing and warning about and the apparent inability of government and business to understand the gravity of the situation.

Dr Heide Hackmann, executive director of the International Social Science Council, was quoted recently as saying: “We inhabit a global context characterised more sharply than ever before by uncertainty; the proliferation of environmental problems and disaster risk; a sense of urgency; of staggering complexity as social crises of food, finance, inequality and climate converge; and the apparent inability of existing social institutions and governance systems to control these processes and set us on a change of course …

“Why, in the face of decades of excellent science and knowledge on issues of global change, are we still not making headway in terms of solving the problem? Do we need a different kind of knowledge, or do we need new ways of making sure our knowledge is utilized?”

She ventured an answer by advocating a more holistic approach. “New interdisciplinary research initiatives in the field of global environmental change are essential, with the joint framing of research agendas and questions between scientists of different disciplines, different fields, using different approaches to develop innovative solutions to the problems we face today, and those that will confront society in the future.”

Taking a fairly similar line, though from a decidedly different perspective, Geoff Sinclair, head of carbon trading at South Africa’s Standard Bank, recently wrote that beyond acknowledging the realities, the idea of managing climate change was still being developed and governments and boards of directors all around the world were still adapting to the concept itself. Even developed economies needed help with climate finance to become green. Everyone was learning and everyone had to innovate somewhere along the line.

“It’s an ideal scenario for Africa in particular. Why? Because Africa is the clean sheet on which humanity’s collective knowledge about finance and climate could be jointly written in the most coherent way possible in order to produce economies that are green from the ground up.”

He said Africa’s further development could be based on entirely new industries and markets rather than constantly playing catch-up in the conventional ways of producing commodities and products that are so entrenched in the developed economies. “Africa could leapfrog the old world to be both the leader in and the symbol of a green future for the entire planet.”

The possibility of Africa becoming the world’s climate safety valve should make foreign direct investment easy to motivate. And if Africa made innovative use of climate finance, such as through the Kyoto Protocol’s clean development mechanism, “it will gain an economic advantage that centuries of conventional development could never give it,” he wrote.

Hopes for a practical way forward have also come from a meeting arranged by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) South Africa that included government, business and civil society representatives. The respected organization said on it website that it was agreed  that the negotiations in Durban would be unlikely to achieve a fair, legally-binding agreement. But it should at least lay out a broad map for the transition to a low-carbon world.

The organization’s Africa Policy and Partnerships Advisor, Rubina Haroon, reported that discussions are already being held over what Africa could do without waiting for support from industrialized countries and developing low-carbon initiatives that can be scaled up when support materializes. She added: “It is great to see people combining hard-nosed realism with a positive approach to collectively seeking solutions that address both job creation and climate change response”.

One of the stickier points remains that of the Green Climate Fund which remains empty despite promises by the developed nations back in 2009 of passing U.S.$30 billion into it between 2010 and 2012, and $100 billion a year by 2020 to enable developing nations to adapt to climate change and reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

Whether the developed nations will be able to live up to their word in the prevailing economic conditions is an open question. It is a cause of distrust and potentially another round of debilitating argument. But perhaps in this case, too, pragmatic options might provide the answer, such  as the Financial Transaction Tax that French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed to the G-20 meeting in Cannes, with support from several of the countries, including Germany, Brazil and South Africa.

Yet further evidence of the search for practical answers has come from the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which says nearly 80 percent  of the world’s energy needs can be met by 2050 through renewable energy sources.  All it needs is for governments to lead the way and set policies that encourage technology transfer, awareness-raising, and financing.

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) says the finding shows we don’t need to wait for new inventions.  The global shift towards clean energy can be achieved with the sustainable application of existing technologies such as bioenergy, solar, wind and hydropower.

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Meet the Author

Leon Marshall
Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won several awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.