COP 17 President Maite Nkoana-Mashabane speaks during a news conference at the Conference of the Parties (COP17) of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, November 30, 2011. Almost 200 nations began global climate talks on Monday with time running out to save the Kyoto Protocol aimed at cutting the greenhouse gas emissions scientists blame for rising sea levels, intense storms, drought and crop failures. The COP17 runs until December 9. REUTERS/Rogan Ward (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: POLITICS ENVIRONMENT)

International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane joined others in prayer at a church in Umlazi on Sunday for a successful outcome to the COP17 climate conference in Durban.

This naturally elicited some flippant remarks about how desperate the minister and her government must be about getting a deal as the countdown begins to the end of the talks on Friday.

Priests and gurus have certainly contributed their bit to the big effort being made at COP17 to achieve a far-reaching climate deal. And a great deal of faith in mankind, if not divine intervention, certainly seems in order.

But for most, religion remains a metaphor in the climate change milieu. Last week at COP17, during a discussion about carbon trading, Henry Derwent, a carbon trader, offered one of the best.

He noted that many climate change purists regarded carbon credits as “papal indulgences”. They believed that instead of being allowed to buy such credits to emit carbon by financing the efforts of developing countries to combat climate change, they should simply not be allowed to sin.

Derwent complained about how such ideologues were throwing obstacles in the path of agreement.

He said some delegates from the developing world, and particularly Africa, were trying to kill the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the centrepiece of the carbon-trading system, unless the developed countries signed up to a second commitment period under the Kyoto protocol.

That protocol is the only global legally binding treaty for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, but it is in severe jeopardy. Japan, Canada and Russia have announced that they will not sign up to a second commitment period under the Kyoto protocol when the first one expires at the end of next year.

They say that, together, all the so-called “Annex 1” developed countries which signed the first commitment period generated only about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases and that unless other major emitters like China, India and Brazil committed themselves, the Kyoto protocol remained meaningless.

The EU and a few others feel much the same, but they have at least agreed to be part of a second commitment period if all the big emitters agree in Durban to negotiate towards a broader, legally binding emission-curbing treaty to be implemented from 2020.

That’s the big deal on the table in Durban, although the chances of its being clinched look rather slim.

If that deal is not agreed to here and the EU and company carry out their threat not to sign on to a second commitment period under the Kyoto protocol, there is a grave danger that Durban will become notorious, at least in the popular mind, as “the graveyard of the Kyoto protocol”.

However, Japan for one insists that this would be an incorrect characterisation and that the Kyoto Protocol would live on in its other important elements, not least the CDM, which it says it will continue to support fully.

Many analysts believe that the carbon-trading markets that help finance the CDM will falter and perhaps fail without the legally binding commitments to emission reductions of a second Kyoto commitment period.

Already the volumes of carbon trading have begun declining quite steeply. Uncertainty about the future of Kyoto has been offered as the most likely reason, although carbon traders don’t all agree.

But it is one thing for the carbon market to get antsy and reluctant to invest; it is quite another for the government to try deliberately to scupper the CDM purely to punish those who want out of the Kyoto protocol.

No doubt they should stay in. And other big emitters should join them. But those who are trying to kill the CDM are shooting themselves in the foot. If the immense amounts of money that have already been committed by rich countries to finance the fight against climate change by poor countries are to be met – $100 billion (R797m) over a year by 2020 – markets will have to play a big part. This is in the end about economics, not religion or morality.