Durban delivers climate breakthrough

11 December 2011

It went far into overtime, but the UN climate summit hosted and steered by South Africa finally delivered the deal the world has been waiting for – a clear pathway to a legally binding instrument that will compel all countries, including the biggest polluters, to take action to slow the pace of global warming.

The package of agreements making up the “Durban Platform” also include a new commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, the launch of the Green Climate Fund, and the implementation of the agreements made in Cancun, Mexico in 2010.

Marathon negotiating session

The successful conclusion of the awkwardly named 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came after a marathon, often fractious, three-night negotiating session in Durban’s International Convention Centre.

It was well after sunrise in the South African coastal city on Sunday that the conference president, Maite Koana-Mashabane, brought the gavel down on the last of the decisions comprising the Durban Platform – to the relief of the remaining bleary-eyed participants.

“We have taken crucial steps forward for the common good and the global citizenry today. I believe that what we have achieved in Durban will play a central role in saving tomorrow, today,” said Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation.

Praise for South Africa’s leadership

“I salute the countries who made this agreement,” said UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres. “They have all laid aside some cherished objectives of their own to meet a common purpose – a long-term solution to climate change.

“I sincerely thank the South African presidency, who steered through a long and intense conference to a historic agreement that has met all major issues.”

The UNFCCC said in a statement that the countries meeting in Durban had “delivered a breakthrough on the future of the international community’s response to climate change, while recognizing the urgent need to raise their collective level of ambition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to keep the average global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius.”

Pathway to a universal legal agreement

For the first time, governments agreed to adopt a universal legal agreement on climate change – one that includes both rich developed countries like the US as well as developing giants such as China and India – to be decided on not later than 2015 and to come into force by 2020.

Work on this would begin immediately under a new group called the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.

Governments, including 35 industrialised countries, also agreed a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol from 1 January 2013 – the current period expires on 31 December 2012.

To achieve rapid clarity, parties to the second period will turn their economy-wide targets into quantified emission-limitation or reduction objectives and submit them for review by 1 May 2012.

“This is highly significant because the Kyoto Protocol’s accounting rules, mechanisms and markets [will] all remain in action as effective tools to leverage global climate action and as models to inform future agreements,” Figueres said.

‘Common but differentiated responsibilities’

Also agreed on in Durban was an advanced framework for reporting emission reductions that covers both developed and developing countries while taking into account the principle – something developing countries had been pushing hard for – of “common but differentiated responsibilities” of different countries.

In addition to charting the way forward for reducing greenhouse gases in the global context, governments meeting in South Africa agreed the full implementation of the package – agreed to in Cancun, Mexico in 2010 – to help developing nations adapt to and mitigate the worst effect of climate change.

“This means that urgent support for the developing world, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable to adapt to climate change, will also be launched on time,” Figueres said.

Assistance, funding for developing countries

The package includes the Green Climate Fund, an Adaptation Committee designed to improve the coordination of adaptation actions on a global scale, and a Technology Mechanism, all of which will become fully operational in 2012.

At the same time, the governments “acknowledged the urgent concern that the current sum of pledges to cut emissions both from developed and developing countries is not high enough to keep the global average temperature rise below two degrees Celsius,” the UNFCCC said.

“They therefore decided that the UN Climate Change process shall increase ambition to act and will be led by the climate science in the IPCC’s [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s] Fifth Assessment Report and the global Review from 2013-2015.”

Figueres said that, while these deadlines still had to be met, “countries, citizens and businesses who have been behind the rising global wave of climate action can now push ahead confidently, knowing that Durban has lit up a broader highway to a low-emission, climate-resilient future.”

The next major UN climate summt, COP 18, will take place in Qatar, in close cooperation with the Republic of Korea, from 26 November to 7 December 2012.

SAinfo reporter