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.

Changing Planet

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.