People walk past a globe with an interactive display, part of the COP15 summit in Copenhagen in 2009. The summit is remembered for the discord among negotiators, which dealt a blow to the entire climate change multilateral negotiating system.

DURBAN and Copenhagen are two very different cities, and – symbolically – their marked climatic differences also reflect something of the crucial international climate change debate.

South Africa’s biggest port city lies in the warm subtropics, and November is by all accounts hot, steamy and very uncomfortable.

This is what delegates to the 17th Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, or just COP17 for short) will experience when they venture out of the air-conditioned interior of the Durban International Convention Centre between November 28 and December 9.

But there will be no respite inside, however, where the debate is likely to be every bit as heated and the atmosphere just as charged.

The Danish capital, by contrast, was snowy and freezing when thousands converged on it for COP15 in December 2009, hoping to witness what had been talked up as an expected diplomatic triumph and the signing of a new global climate change agreement by all the major greenhouse gas polluters of the world, including, crucially, the US.

It’s common cause that this hoped-for agreement did not materialise.

The summit was not a total failure and the non-binding Copenhagen Accord did contain some important advances – notably, the principle of establishing a green climate fund to support developing nations’ efforts to deal with the predicted ravages of climate change.

More worrying, however, was that serious discord at the Danish meeting dealt the entire climate change multilateral negotiating system a severe blow, and by the time the summit ended, relations between many of the negotiators and power blocs were as frosty as the icy streets outside.

A year later, a huge diplomatic effort by the Mexican government to reduce expectations and get negotiators talking to each other again precipitated a thaw for the next COP16 meeting in Cancun, and the negotiating temperature was more in tune with the balmier surroundings of the Mexican tourist city.

What emerged here was the adoption of the Cancun Agreements, a set of much more pragmatic and politically realistic decisions to address the long-term challenge of climate change collectively and comprehensively over time, although many activists considered these agreements as too weak, too little and too late.

One of the key Cancun decisions was to approve terms of reference for the green climate fund, aimed at channelling $100 billion (R8 trillion) by 2020 to developing countries to help pay for mitigation measures to reduce their emissions and, particularly, for adaptation measures to deal with impacts that are being experienced.

Cancun set up a 40-member transitional committee, tasked with producing a draft plan for the fund to get it operational quickly. The draft recommendations by this committee, which was co-chaired by Planning Minister Trevor Manuel, will be presented to the Durban COP17 for approval.

One of the critical debates in Durban will be how to fill the fund’s coffers, especially in the tough global financial climate.

Proposals sure to generate strong opinions include the so-called “Robin Hood” tax on large financial transactions, and a carbon tax on the global aviation and shipping industries that have, until now, escaped penalties for their significant emissions.

Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa, who will be heading South Africa’s delegation to COP17 – Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane is the summit’s president – says developing countries will “need to see the colour of money”.

But Cancun ducked the really big question, the elephant in the climate change room: how to proceed with the Kyoto Protocol, still the only binding international commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, after its first commitment period ends on December 31 next year.

During this four-year commitment period, 39 “Annex 1” developed countries must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by a collective 5.2 percent below 1990 levels. Ideally, there should be no gap between this first and a second commitment period, which should start on January 1, 2013 if the emission reduction strategy is to be effective.

But there is serious disagreement about who should, and will, sign up for such a second commitment and under what circumstances they would sign. This is particularly vexing because the situation has changed substantially in some developing countries that were not bound to emissions targets for the first commitment period when this was agreed on way back in 1997.

China in particular has had enormous economic and industrial growth and is now the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter by volume.

But other emerging economic powerhouses like India, Brazil and South Africa are also now acknowledged as no longer deserving the simple “developing” tag.

Some countries want the Kyoto Protocol scrapped and a new accord put in its place, but here too there is disagreement over whether this accord should have legally binding emissions reduction targets or merely be self-regulated and combined with a global carbon cap-and-trade system.

The EU, after some initial wavering, has now stepped forward and taken the lead in the run-up to COP17, offering to continue its emissions reduction commitments under Kyoto if other nations will join too.

But three of the major developed Annex 1 countries – Japan, Russia and Canada – are refusing for various reasons to agree to extend their Kyoto commitments, although this could change if major developing nations like China, Brazil, India, Indonesia and South Africa agree to formal emissions cuts.

China negotiates as part of the “G77 and China” bloc, which has set agreement on continuation of the Kyoto Protocol as a bottom line for negotiations of a balanced package of outcomes. But because China, India and others have not yet indicated a willingness to accept legally binding targets, there is no clear path forward in the negotiations.

Africa’s common position is that it wants a just and equitable solution to climate change, particularly because the continent is least responsible for emissions but will suffer the most severe impacts.

The US remains the fly in the ointment and will not ratify the Kyoto Protocol or agree to legally binding cuts at this stage.

Not only have several attempts by President Barack Obama to push through the required national climate change legislation failed, but the presidential race for the next term of office has started in earnest – and some Republican candidates don’t even accept the reality of climate change.

International conservation group WWF is concerned about the potential for a breakdown in negotiations in Durban.

“We raise this not to be alarmist but to alert leaders that their current approaches mean they may fail to reach a minimally acceptable agreement in Durban – and failure at this point is not a viable option,” it says.

“The path our leaders choose will be critical and they need to be reminded that they will be making these choices while on African soil – a continent particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change... The people of Africa and the world will be watching.”

There is near-unanimous agreement that Durban will not achieve a fair, legally binding accord that would tie in all greenhouse gas-polluting nations, but there is growing, if cautious, optimism that it could approve a broad map for the transition to a low-carbon world and the framework for a comprehensive new agreement in the next few years.

Such an outcome would not satisfy many climate activists and environmentalists. But politics is the art of the possible, they say, and realpolitik dictates that Durban will, at best, be a stepping stone on the path towards the ambitious goal of a single, legally binding, global climate agreement signed by all nations on Earth.

l John Yeld is the Cape Argus’s Environment & Science Writer

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