Melanie Gosling

Environment Writer

THE international climate talks are complex and peppered with jargon, but the essence of what they are trying to achieve is clear cut: to reduce greenhouse gases so that climate change remains below a dangerous level. Because it’s a global issue, they need a global meeting.

A second aim is to find ways to adapt to the inevitability of some climate change.

These two issues underpin the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and will form the basis of the international COP17 climate negotiations which begin in Durban on Monday.

Is this what COP17 delegates mean when they talk of mitigation and adaptation?

Yes. In the context of the COP negotiations, mitigation refers to reducing greenhouse gases. Adaptation refers to all the action the world needs to take to try to deal with the impact of climate change, such as changing the kind of agriculture to suit drier conditions or building infrastructure to cope with increased flooding. Most of the COP negotiations centre around mitigation and adaptation.

How do we know some climate change is “inevitable?”

Because of the high levels of greenhouse gas emissions already in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide levels are higher today than anytime in the last 150 000 years. As the level of greenhouse gases increases, so does global temperature. However, because of the complexity of how the global climate works, there is a “lag” in the time it takes for the climate to respond. Also, CO2 has a long “lifespan” – around a century. So even if the entire world stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today, the climate would continue to change until about 2050 because of the emissions already in the atmosphere.

If climate change is inevitable, what is the point of cutting emissions?

It is a question of scale. The more we pump out, the worse climate change will be. If the COP negotiations can get world governments to make deep cuts soon enough, we can reduce the severity of climate change.

By how much do we have to cut emissions to avoid dangerous climate change?

Scientists say a 2°C increase in average global temperature is the highest we can go if we want a 50 percent chance of avoiding the worst of climate change. Although it may sound small, a 2°C increase will make the world a very different place from what we know today.

The average global temperature increase so far is just under 0.8°C, and we are already seeing the effects with an increase in extreme weather events: floods, heatwaves, droughts and stronger cyclones.

To stay at or under 2°C, our global CO2 emissions cannot go higher than 450 parts per million. They are already at 379ppm. Before the Industrial Revolution they were at 280ppm. And global carbon rose by a record amount last year, rebounding on the heels of a recession.

Is COP17 in Durban going to agree on these emission cuts to stay under 2°C?

Highly unlikely. Under the UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol, developed countries are obliged to cut their emissions first and fastest, because they are responsible for the bulk of emissions already in the atmosphere. In 1997 developed countries agreed to mandatory cuts in emissions within the protocol’s first phase which began in 2005 and ends in 2012.

The second phase should have been thrashed out already, with more ambitious cuts and a system to deal with emissions from developing countries and the US, but COP15 in Copenhagen and COP16 in Cancun failed to achieve this. In fact, some developed countries – Canada, Japan and Russia – want to scrap the Kyoto Protocol. The US, the biggest emitter historically and the second biggest today, won’t sign the protocol and wants to dismantle it and replace it with voluntary “pledges” to cut emissions.

At Cancun, countries put their voluntary pledges on the table. These pledges are so low, that UNEP has said they would put the world on a track to a catastrophic 5°C warming.

A major reason for no agreement is nations protecting their national interests.

Do any developed nations support going on with the Kyoto Protocol?

Yes. The EU has said they are willing to honour a second commitment period, but on condition this is accompanied by a clear process to negotiate a global mitigation deal in the near future. In other words, between 2013 and 2017, governments must come up with a legally-binding instrument to cut emission which includes the US and the big polluting economies of the developing world – China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Durban could be a turning point in this regard by laying this foundation.

Did any value come out of the previous two COPs at Copenhagen and Cancun?

It is generally felt that the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009 ended in failure. Some felt this spelled the end of the multi-lateral government process to tackle climate change.

One of the outcomes of the the COP in Cancun, was that faith was restored in the UN process and the talks were back on track. Progress was made on adaptation issues and established an “adaptation package” which will provide developing countries with money and technical support to adapt to climate change. This includes the Green Climate Fund.

What is the Green Climate Fund?

Adapting to climate change costs money. This could include building infrastructure, transforming agriculture, or building renewable energy plants. Poorer nations are at a disadvantage in this respect.

The Green Climate Fund was set up to provide long-term financing to support projects and programmes for developing countries so they can pay for adaptation work, and for reducing emissions.

Trevor Manuel, Minister in the Presidency: National Planning Commission, chaired the committee which worked on designing the fund this year. The Durban talks have to approve this.

One source of money to fill the fund could be levies a tax on emissions from aviation and shipping could provide $10 billion (R84.7bn) a year.

Is there one issue more important than others at the Durban COP?

Andy Mason of OneWorld summed it up: “… what is at stake begins to emerge. Will Durban be the graveyard of the Kyoto Protocol, or will it be the birthplace of a second commitment period and a new era of optimism in the ability of the United Nations process to take charge of runaway emission and provide enough money for sorely needed adaptions measure in the world’s poorest countries?”