Former US President George W. Bush (R), his wife Laura and former US Secretary of State Colin Powell at the Kyoto Protocol summit. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell

The extension of the Kyoto Protocol is the main hope of South Africa and most developing nations at the 17th Conference of Parties (COP17) climate change summit in Durban.

Alf Wills, South Africa’s lead climate change negotiator, told business leaders in Joburg ahead of the Durban conference the Kyoto Protocol was the only instrument in which all rules associated with accounting for carbon emissions were agreed and it was in the country’s interests to preserve those rules.

As part of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Protocol binds 37 developed nations and the European community to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 5 percent against 1990 levels over the five-year period from 2008 to 2012.

Among its provisions, the protocol enables developed countries to offset emissions by funding emission-reduction projects in developing countries, such as SA, and to trade in carbon credits earned through these activities. The first commitment period under the potocol ends in 2012. However, many developed nations are reluctant to sign new legally binding agreements, leaving in limbo the extension of the protocol for a second commitment period.

While the UNFCCC merely encourages developed countries to stabilise their GHG emissions, the protocol is the only climate change agreement that commits signatories to do so.

Wills said there was general acceptance negotiations in Durban would not reach a final legal agreement on emission reduction, but would be a step along the way towards that outcome. As far as the protocol was concerned, the US had declined to be a signatory for the first commitment period. The EU and countries like China and India were therefore reluctant to bind themselves to agreements.

“These countries envisage a step-by-step building of the international climate system in which they can ‘test drive’ the effect of agreements on their economies before considering legally binding international treaties,” Wills said.

In the absence of legally binding agreements, climate change negotiations would follow a “transitional, bottom-up, pledge-and-review process”, Wills said.

“A horrible outcome for Durban is a transitional period with no further commitment to the Kyoto Protocol. This opens the way for a wild west approach in which countries say what they can do regardless of what science says about climate change.”