COP17 President Maite Nkoana-Mashabane

THE international Convention Centre is empty, the 15 000 delegates have gone home and the 17th round of annual UN climate talks has ended.

As dawn broke over Durban yesterday, bleary-eyed negotiators finally clinched a deal after the longest round of climate talks to date. Scheduled to end on Friday, the negotiations went round the clock for the final two days, drawing to a close early yesterday morning.

The outcome, called the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, has elicited vastly different responses. COP17 president Maite Nkoana-Mashabane described it as one which would “save tomorrow” from the ravages of climate change, while WWF chief Jim Leape described the outcome as “nothing but hot air”.

Observers could be forgiven for thinking the two were talking about separate issues – and that pinpoints the central problem. This compromise is so open to interpretation, one can more or less make of it what one will.

The least controversial results include deals set up to establish the Green Climate Fund, to transfer clean technology to developing countries, and several other technical issues.

It is the measures to be taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the cause of climate change, that have drawn the most fire. In essence, nations have agreed to launch a fresh negotiating process which would oblige all countries – including the poorest – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through a new, over-arching legal agreement. Until now, only rich countries were obliged to do so under the Kyoto protocol. The new deal would have to be agreed upon by 2015 and come into force by 2020.

This outcome may be a victory of sorts, in that it broke the deadlock and saved the Durban talks from collapse. On the other hand, it is a political compromise that will begin action a decade too late. Scientists have said global emissions must peak by 2017 if we are to have a fighting chance of keeping climate change below dangerous levels. To achieve this, we need to begin today.

This raises a chilling question: if world governments, together, cannot do what is needed to deliver us from dangerous climate change, who will?