Greenpeace activist protest outside the venue of the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin.

The South African government is doing all it can to avert the “death” of the Kyoto Protocol, because it does not want the upcoming climate talks to be tainted, as the Copenhagen talks were two years ago.

Ferrial Adam, a climate change campaigner for Greenpeace Africa, said this week that ensuring the future of the international climate agreement was key to the success of South Africa hosting the UN climate conference, which starts in Durban on November 28.

The first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, which was drawn up in the late 1990s to cut dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, expires next year.

“There is definite nervousness about the protocol dying in Durban,” said Adam.

“There is a sense, and a feeling, that the government is trying as much as possible (to ensure) it doesn’t end here in South Africa. We don’t want to be painted with the same brush as Copenhagen.”

Adam was speaking at an informal ministerial session, held by the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, together with civil society this week.

The Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane is the president of the 17th Session of the Conference of Parties of the UN Framework in Climate Change (COP17).

Referring to the “shambles” of Copenhagen, which only achieved weak commitments to cut emissions, Adam called on the government to show decisive leadership in Durban.

“I believe the protocol is the only legally binding agreement the world has. It’s not perfect, but it’s what we have to hold countries accountable for their contributions to climate change.

“But (in Durban) we must not be left with a Kyoto Protocol and nothing inside. It must not just become a political document that survives…

“South Africa is key to prevent a deadlock and that can only be done if the political work is done ahead of time,” she said.

South Africa is playing a cautious role in the run-up to the negotiations in its consultations with developed countries, which are loath to commit to a legally binding deal on climate change.

“Being too cautious, and too neutral, could end up with no Kyoto Protocol and this could shut down the whole process,” Adam warned.

Suhayfa Zia, the department’s director of international relations and trade, revealed that while there was “cautious optimism” about South Africa’s role in the talks, there is little hope of achieving an ambitious, legally binding deal.

“We’re mindful that Durban has become the critical point in finding a lasting solution, especially to the question of the Kyoto Protocol.

“However, in reality, the global political dynamics are not very supportive of a progressive trend in negotiations,” said Zia.

The US, she said, remained “categoric” that it would not sign up to any commitment period for a second phase to extend the Kyoto protocol, or for a legally binding outcome.

“The science is quite clear. We need to do more. But what we’re seeing is the level of ambition dropping.

“We see a threat to the fragmentation of the architecture of climate change, with more emphasis on domestic, rather than on an international rules-based system, and we see that multi-lateralism through these negotiations is also at stake.

“For developed countries, the indications are that most aren’t going for anything legally binding at COP17.

“Most of the developed countries want COP17 to focus mainly on the implementation of the Cancun agreements and are very resistant to the inclusion of the unfinished business of the Bali road map.”

Zia said other African countries were looking to South Africa to provide leadership to get the developed world to commit to financing and supporting the continent – the worst-hit but the least responsible for global atmospheric pollution – in helping it adapt to climate change.

“We know Cancun rekindled trust in the process, but we know that trust is fragile. We’re hopeful that in Durban we’re able to build on the process.

“We’re hopeful that in Durban we’re able to strengthen that process. It’s important for us to be able to use diplomacy to overcome intractable challenges.”

Adam said what was needed on South Africa’s part was political groundwork and diplomacy, not “unbiased facilitation”.

Jennifer Haverkamp, the director of the international climate programme at the US-based Environmental Defence Fund, said there was little hope of achieving a binding global treaty in Durban.

She said that unlike COP17, negotiators at Cancun had the advantage of reaching agreement on easier issues. - Saturday Star