The reductions in emissions levels promised by developed countries leave much to be desired, says Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu.

The climate change conference in Panama City last month was the most recent in a series of multilateral meetings leading up to COP17. What happened there? Did these discussions affect the message the African Group of Negotiators will bring to Durban?

We went to Panama with the backing of ministers from more than 50 African states, and took with us a common message thrashed out at the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment in September. Our experiences there strengthened our resolve.

Our principles are contained in the African Common Position. Briefly, we are looking for an outcome that strengthens the convention and secures subsequent commitment periods for developed countries under the Kyoto Protocol, as well as comparable efforts by the US. We want to see an effort, in particular by the developed countries, to close the “mitigation gap” and ensure the environmental integrity of their commitments.

The African group gained strength through new formal alliances with 48 countries represented in the Least Developed Countries Group, and with developing countries in Latin America. We also reach-ed out to the small island developing states, the G77 countries, China, and the EU.

We don’t believe that the Durban conference is going to be easy, but we are well prepared to get the best outcome for Africa.

Reports indicate that some countries do not wish to go ahead with a second commitment period. Are we now looking at a scenario with some countries inside the multilateral process and others outside it?

At play in these negotiations is the future of the entire multilateral system for addressing climate change. The developing countries are united in their demand that the developed countries agree to a second period of commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. This was made clear in the unity statement of all members of the G77 and China at the UN General Assembly.

In the view of the developing world, the protocol is and remains the central pillar of the climate regime. But there is a growing concern that some of the largest and wealthiest countries want to weaken rather than strengthen their commitments to address climate change, while imposing stronger obligations on developing countries.

They seek to tear down the Kyoto Protocol, now or later, and to replace it with a different architecture.

A few have said they will not participate in a second commitment period, despite their legal obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, while others have said the next commitment period should be “transitional” to a new regime.

In other words, they seek to “transition” out of their legally binding obligations under the Kyoto Protocol into a new regime we have not designed yet.

One country seems to prefer an altogether weaker system via a “pledge-based” rather than “science-based” system of emission reductions that applies “symmetrically” to rich and poor countries.

So it is not merely a question of who will remain inside or outside the multilateral process, but, more fundamentally, what that process will be. This is the big question for Durban.

You have called for an ambitious outcome in Durban, and you have said the developed countries need to “increase their level of ambition” with regard to emission reduction targets. This suggests a lack of ambition among these countries to tackle climate change.

In 1992 the developed countries agreed to take the lead in curbing emissions by implementing policies that cut their emissions to 1990 levels by 2000, and, in the Kyoto Protocol, they committed to cutting emissions to 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Between 1990 and 2008, however, emissions by wealthy, developed countries increased by about eight percent.

The US, which withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, has increased its emissions by 16 percent. Last year alone, its emissions increased almost 4 percent, the largest annual increase since 1988.

The only economies that have reduced their emissions have been the economies in transition. This has been because of failed economic policies rather than successful environmental ones.

A handful of developed countries have genuinely reduced emissions, but much of this has been achieved by taking polluting industries off-shore to developing countries. In truth, the emissions associated with their consumption remain high.

And so we continue to await the leadership promised by developed countries in 1992. Unfortunately, their promised future emission reductions leave much to be desired.

The African ministers of environment have said this is unacceptable and have called on developed countries to cut emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2017.

You have said that media reports are dominated by Western countries’ spin on the negotiations. The message coming through our newspapers is rather gloomy. Could this be a reflection of the reluctance of some powerful countries to meet their original promises?

The developed countries are adept at using the media to shape expectations, not only those of the public, but also those of decision-makers in some developing countries. The African ministers, however, are clear about their expectations for Durban. They are not going play into any effort to downgrade expectations. Durban can and must deliver for Africa.

We expect a few of the developed countries to present a challenge in the endgame in Durban. Will they be part of the multilateral solution to climate change, or will they walk away from their legally binding obligations? We hope wisdom and solidarity will prevail, not merely for the future of a billion Africans, but for their own people as well.

Many Africans are looking for a positive message about our capability to do something about climate change. How would you reframe the message in positive terms for the people of Africa?

We believe a successful outcome in Durban will help to reinvigorate the negotiations and convince the people of the world that their governments are committed to solving climate change.

Power ultimately lies with the people of the world, not with the polluters. Just as we have seen movements of people taking to the streets to demand a greater say in their futures, so we must demand progress on climate change in Durban.

Leaders who fail to see this pattern will not be the leaders of tomorrow. So I believe Durban will mark an important step forward in the global effort to tackle climate change. It is up to all of us to make it so.

l Mason manages the publishing programme of OneWorld Sustainable Investments, a Cape Town company engaged primarily in climate change and development work in southern Africa.