Thanks to the African spirit of Ubuntu, the Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa (COP17) was rescued from going down the same drainpipe as the previous one in Copenhagen and, instead, produced the first global agreement that has real teeth to it.
As had happened in previous conferences, all the high-sounding rhetoric on the importance of cleaning the environment by cutting carbon emissions evaporated into thin air when national self interest was at stake. Everybody blamed everybody else for environmental pollution but no one was prepared to do anything seriously concrete about their own levels of emissions.
The rich countries blamed China (the world’s worst offender) and other emerging economies for refusing to cut their emission levels while the emerging economies argued back that it was all very well for the advanced nations to ask each other to cut back emissions when they had been polluting the atmosphere for centuries as they build up their industries. They wanted the developed nations to drastically reduce their emissions but to be allowed to develop their own industries unhindered until such time as parity with the rich countries could be reached.
This has been the pattern for the last two decades with no one willing to give an inch while some of the world’s worst polluters, such as the US (second biggest after China) digging out dubious experts and statistics to try and convince the rest of us that the whole climate change theory is hogwash.
This time however, the standoff was interestingly different. There were still two opposing groups but the configuration inside had changed. One group, led by the EU, contained least developed countries (LDCs) and small island states; the other group consisted of the US, Brazil, South Africa, India and China.
The first group wanted bigger emissions cuts faster, while the second group was firmly opposed to it. Once again, log jam. Two weeks of talks, discussions, arguments, emotional outbursts, abuses and name calling and nothing to show for it except so much hot air to add to whatever is already there in abundance. COP17 seemed destined to go the same sorry way as Copenhagen.
Then, just as the conference was about to close, South Africa’s Foreign Minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane decided enough was enough. It was time for some African style commonsense. She rounded up the chief negotiators of the US, Britain, France, Sweden, Gambia, Brazil, China and India and metaphorically locked them in a room until they could come up with a solution.
Against all expectations, when the group emerged from their ‘huddle’, they had reached an agreement – the ‘Durban Platform’. What is more, this agreement, unlike the previous ones such as Kyoto, is legally binding. Once you sign the agreement, you cannot back out of it.
But as always in such compromises, some things were lost. While the EU-led group wanted a legally binding outcome by the end of this year, the US led group insisted on 2020. The terms have to be agreed by 2015 and come into force by 2020.
Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which demanded that only the rich countries cut their emissions, the Durban Platform demands that all countries, developed and developing, cut their emissions. How much, by whom and when will be negotiated fiercely between now and 2015. In the meanwhile, countries will continue their voluntary efforts to reduce emissions in line with Kyoto but according to experts, the 2020 deadline before policies can be enforced by law will mean that the earth will get warmer by two degrees – which could well prove fatal for some low-lying islands and countries heavily dependent on seasonal rains.
It was also agreed that a green climate fund would be established to help developing nations reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate against the effects of climate change. South Korea, Germany and Denmark have already pledged money to the proposed $100bn fund and it will be interesting to see how many other countries put their money where their mouths are.
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