Changing Planet

Durban Plan for Climate Treaty Greeted With Mixed Feelings

The COP17 round of climate negotiations in Durban has once again shown just how hard it is to devise a cohesive international response to this threatening phenomenon. It is for this reason that the conference’s agreement to sign up to an all-inclusive legal commitment to reduce carbon emissions has been hailed as a major breakthrough, even though the signing of such a treaty has been put off for another four years and implementation is only due to start in 2020.

Environmental organizations have expressed dismay at the delay, arguing that nearly a decade is too much time for countries to freely keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They also fear that the time span and the manner in which the agreement got phrased leave too much room for escape.

With the international Greenpeace organization setting the tone, green activists have been extraordinarily vocal in urging more resolute action from the sidelines of the South African harbor city’s convention center where the conference was held. It seemed to fit with the view expressed by some analysts that more effective action would only be spurred by governments and industries coming under pressure from mass action.

Nevertheless, considering the gloomy prospects held out for the Durban meeting, especially in view of the current global financial crisis, the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the South African hosts of the conference and most of the negotiating parties themselves were quite ecstatic at having achieved agreement on the postponed treaty, dubbed the Durban Platform. The scenes of kissing, hugging, handshaking and fist-pumping as the motion got carried, told the story.

There was relief, too, at having saved the Kyoto protocol, albeit in weakened form, with Canada and perhaps Japan and a few others set to pull out. It seemed to be the threatened abandonment of this single legally binding emission-reduction treaty, driven mainly by the European Union, that played the most persuasive part in getting most other countries to save it by agreeing to the deferred treaty.

The most intriguing part of the proceedings was the interplay between the United States and China. The latter’s announcement early on that it was prepared to enter into a deferred treaty sent a jolt through the convention center. There was immediate scepticism, but whatever happened afterwards in the lobbies and committee rooms, for the two powerhouses and biggest emitters to for once on the this issue emerge on the same side, could come to represent the most significant stride forward in confronting climate change.

With an African country being the host, one of the big objectives of COP17 was to set in motion the Green Climate Fund, agreed to in the 2010 COP16 in Cancun. It seems there was some success in devising ways for encouraging private investment  and in using market mechanisms for channeling funds into it. But prospects for contributions from developed-world governments to the billions that are supposed to assist the developing world in coping with climate change remained markedly vague.

But if the proceedings inside the convention center were tortuously slow and bumpy, not so the picture that got drawn outside it at workshops and presentations on green innovation. It brought to light a notable readiness at many levels of society to switch to more environmentally friendly lifestyles.

This, and the remarkable levels of monitoring and reporting on greenhouse-gas emissions, even among developing countries, could well become a driving force in moving governments and industries to change their development and production patterns. Unaccounted emissions by developing countries were starting to become a bugbear with industrialised countries expected to assist them with emission mitigation and climate adaptation.

One instance of stepped-up mitigation strategies came from the tone-setting role South Africa saw for itself as the host country. In the run-up to the conference and during it, its government announced several projects as proof of its own commitment to a greener future.

The country gets less than one percent of its electricity from renewables, most of the rest coming from its carbon-belching coal-fired power stations, to which two mighty new ones are in the process of being added. While under constant fire from environmentalists for its growing, rather than decreasing, resort to fossil fuels, it is aiming to incorporate renewable energy innovation heavily into its industrial development and job-creating strategies.

The shiniest example of the international tendency towards renewable energy came from a workshop presented by the International Renewable Energy Agency, IRENA, in conjunction with South Africa’s state energy department and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

IRENA was set up in Bonn in 2009 when 75 states signed up to its pledge to work towards closing the gap globally between the enormous potential of renewable energies and their actual use. Its director-general, Adnan Amin, told the workshop that its network of countries now stands at 150, and its hope is to include all the world’s countries in two years.

He admitted the organization was up against powerful forces in trying to divert development away from the oil, coal and gas industries, not least because of their mighty marketing arms. But he did point at the significance of IRENA having been heavily inspired by oil-producing countries and having its headquarters in Abu Dabi.

The biggest immediate potential he saw for renewables was in the rural areas of developing countries, which costs and practicalities made difficult for central fossil-fed power grids to reach. Already solar and wind systems were coming into growing use to power schools, clinics and entire villages. Their possibilities became positively exhilarating when developed in conjunction with hydro systems whereby excess power generated during high sun and wind periods is used to pump water into reservoirs from which it could drive turbines at night and windless times.

The possibilities for cities to take their part in guiding the world to a more climate-friendly future were underscored in a report presented by a research team from the United Kingdom’s universities of Leeds and York.

Dubbed the “City-scale Mini Stern Review”, it evaluated the cost and carbon effectiveness of a wide range of low-carbon options that could be applied to households, industry, commerce and transport within cities. It found that investment in such options of two percent of city-scale gross domestic product (GDP) per year over ten years would generate direct annual savings of 2.2 percent of GDP.

Furthermore, every £1bn of investment in low-carbon options would generate £220 million of energy cost savings each year in the form of reduced energy bills for households, firms and the public sector. As a result, such investments would be able to be repaid in just over four years.

Investment on this scale, say the researchers, would result in numerous benefits for cities, including meeting carbon reduction targets, stimulating economic growth, reducing exposure to energy costs and creating jobs.

Practical ways of switching to a more environmentally friendly existence were similarly outlined in a report presented by the UN  Environment Program (UNEP). It said that moving faster towards renewable-energy technologies, fuel switching and better energy efficiency could deliver a large slice of the required greenhouse gas cuts. Better public transport systems, more fuel efficient vehicles, and changes to farming and waste disposals systems could make a further helpful contribution.

Lending force to the idea of working from the lower echelons up to a safer future was a “Durban Adaptation Charter” signed by more than a hundred mayors from around the world through which they committed themselves to putting the climate-change issue firmly on their city agendas.

“Our cities cannot wait for the COP17 parties. We are at the tipping point of winning or losing the battle against climate change. We, the governments closest to the people, know that we need to take collective action now,” they declared.

In his address to COP17, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted the gathering force of carbon-reduction actions happening on the ground. He quoted one report  as saying that global investment in clean energy rose from $50bn in 2004 to $240bn in 2010.

“Governments and the private sector are combining to create a vision for sustainable energy for all – a win-win-win for poverty reduction, economic growth and cutting greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

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.
  • Andre Libert

    Just how tighreatening is this? No one appears to know, and everyone appears to have an agenda. I would no more believe Al Gore, who has one of the largest carbon footprints on earth, than the man in the moon. So someone tell all of us non-scientists what the real story is. Has this happened before? I am sure that the answer is a big “YES”.

    Did dropping the atomic bombs on Japan have lasting effects to this day? One would never know by looking at the current development in Japan’s largest cities. How many ships, including vast numbers of tankers, in WWII, and have the oceans recovered from all the oil spills? It would appear that they have.

    If this is a serious threat, present some facts that everyone will agree with.

  • Eddie Carr

    The hypocritical nature of these international meetings is astounding. How many tons of green house gases and carbon are being spewed into the atmosphere every year these things are held by having world “leaders” jet in in and out? How many millions of dollars are spent hosting the event? Why not just donate that money to this so-called green fund to” assist the developing world in coping with climate change” instead of mandating that all industrialized countries contribute to it (which, by the way, are your tax dollars going to a UN fund…how well do you think that will turn out???). What a monumental waste of time on an international scale to combat something that isn’t, and can’t be proven to be, man made.

  • jeff

    It seems that nothing can leak through the wall of climate-made-simple propaganda. First, each of the last 20 ice ages (and there are only 20 that can be studied) were preceded by an interglacial of about 10K years duration. Each interglacial ended with a warming spike lasting about 2000 years. We are in an interglacial currently and it has lasted 12k years. We are exactly due for a glacial cycle. If you look at tree ring data we have been in a warming trend for the last 2000 years – interrupted only by the mini ice age. This is solid data. The concept of the model in science is that it is only as good as the assumptions. Estimates are that a 0.1% increase in solar radiation causes 30% of the warming. What about spending money on a more accurate data concerning these assumptions? What about the contribution of carbon injected by deep see vents? Why have you never heard this? The consensus that you hear about is simply a politically driven lie, perpetrated by the usual collusion of thugs. The UN wants to be able to raise funds independently of donor nations. The Russians want to sell their oil. The Europeans believe that they have the replacement infrastructure (rail, nuclear etc) in place, to replace some need for oil while maintaining the benefits of $2 taxation per gallon – but only if economic competition can be crippled. Thus, although Koto was critical and the non-participation of the US an outrage – when it came time for Europe to comply there was no attempt. What would be the motive it you were not crippling the US? Global Warming as the new religion for the press – it makes them feel great to manipulate the minds of the little people. They couldn’t find their buttocks with both hands. Jeff

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  • Dodie

    Regarding your program CAT WARS: LION VS. CHEETAH. The team could not come up with a reasonable explanation why the lion hunted the cheetahs and killed them.. They thought possibly because cheetahs might kill lion cubs. I believe that is wrong. In this particular situation, the male Cheetahs were fighting over a female and probably were secreting testosterone which attracted the male lion and triggered an innate drive to kill like he would another male lion in his territory! The testosterone was the Lion’s trigger

  • wilma

    i read everything you write with great interest.

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