There is no doubt that South Africa pulled off yet another successful hosting of a global event; logistics were smooth, the venue and accessibility better than most previous COP’s and the activities outside of the negotiations itself were engaging with hundreds of side events and exhibitions showcasing the work of organisations and businesses.
The fact that COP 17 was held in South Africa also provided an important opportunity to get citizens engaged in the issue of climate change; raising awareness of ordinary citizens, getting businesses engaged in addressing risks and opportunities and generating massive media attention. A focus on Africa was an important element of this too.
But what did we actually achieve from the negotiations itself? What did countries agree on in terms of addressing the fundamental issue of preventing dangerous climate change?
To answer this question we would have to firstly look at the process and the global political context leading up to COP 17.
The Road to Durban
COP 17 in Durban was always going to be challenging for the South African COP Presidency. The main political challenges were left for resolution in Durban following the Cancun outcome. Issues such as the future of the Kyoto Protocol and legal form, long-term finance and sources, addressing the low levels of emission reduction pledges, amongst others, were held over for decision-making in Durban. Added to this a number of the institutional mechanisms set up in the Cancun agreement were also left for finalization in Durban.
During the year in the lead up to Durban, countries were already drawing their lines in the sand. They were divided on a number of issues: those wanting a voluntary bottom up pledge and review system (US, Canada, Japan, Russia) versus those wanting a top-down legally binding system which is science-based (G77+ China,EU); those supporting the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol versus those who wanted the Kyoto Protocol replaced.
However, the biggest issue for Durban was settling the future of the Kyoto Protocol. This was a redline issue for Developing countries and any progress in Durban would be dependent on an agreement for a second commitment of the Kyoto Protocol. The potential for a breakdown of the talks were great. This is what the South African presidency had to avoid at all costs. A breakdown in Durban would not only have had massive implications for reaching a global agreement on climate change but would certainly have had a huge impact on multilateral processes in general.
In the lead up to Durban the shape of the deal on Kyoto’s future began to become clearer. The EU was willing to agree to a second commitment period on condition that it would be accompanied by an agreement on a roadmap for a future comprehensive agreement that included all parties including developing countries. This was going to be a hard sell given the very strong views on this from the G77 + China who consistently have said that developed countries need to take on legally binding commitments because of their historical responsibility for the problems of climate change.
So the political table was set for Durban. And it was not going to be easy.
What was agreed in Durban and was it an achievement?
The fact that a breakdown of talks was averted in Durban was an achievement indeed. But the contents of what was eventually agreed to by countries was not an achievement in terms of what the scientists are saying is required to prevent runaway dangerous climate change.
The most significant agreement however was that of the legal future. The Kyoto Protocol was saved, albeit on life support for the time being, but more importantly an agreement was reached to work towards a comprehensive agreement that would include both developed and developing countries. This agreement should be finalized by 2015 and would enter into force by 2020. And a new acronym is born, DPEA, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, popularly known as the Durban Platform. This is the platform for negotiating the new comprehensive climate agreement.
But Durban did not only prevent a political meltdown. Amazingly, countries also reached agreement on a number of other elements of a package. The institutional mechanisms such as the Green Climate Fund and Adaptation Committee were finalized. The modalities for a transparent measuring and reporting system were also agreed to. A process for determining long-term finance and sources was set up as well as a process to address what is called the “ambition gap”, that is the existing gap between emissions reduction pledges and what the science says is required to keep global warming limited below 2°C.
Durban’s success was in delivering progress on each of the elements of its packed agenda and avoiding a deadlock. Although from a climate point of view the deal reached is woefully inadequate, with weak provisions to increase emission reduction ambition in the near term and only the 2015 date for the new agreement likely to spur a new round of targets, politically what was achieved is a significant shift from before. The most critical of these was the willingness of Parties, notably from developing countries, that were willing to express their climate action post 2020 in some form of a legally binding agreement.
However, while Durban was a critical COP for the future of the multilateral process, and while it delivered modest progress and process, it did not deliver for climate at the ambition levels needed to achieve the agreed goal of limiting global average temperature increases to 2ºC, let alone 1.5ºC in order to prevent catastrophic climate change. In fact what we currently have on the table in terms of emission reduction pledges puts the world on a path to 3°C - 4°C warming.
What now – the road to COP 18 in Qatar
Now that a potential multilateral crisis has been averted countries would need to roll up their sleeves and get down to the business of actually addressing climate change. They would have to deal with two key issues, the levels of emission reduction targets in the near term up to 2015 as well as securing finance for developing country actions, for both mitigation and adaptation. Negotiators will also have to finalise the program of work for the Durban Platform as soon as possible so that negotiations for the new agreement can make progress.
The South African government is still the COP President and is technically so until COP 18. They need to play a critical role in ensuring that progress is made on all 3 tracks of the negotiations, the Kyoto Protocol, the Bali Action Plan and now the Durban Platform. The Durban Platform (negotiations for a new agreement by 2015) is a South African legacy and even when they step down as President, they need to take responsibility for its success. A COP in Qatar of course comes with its own challenges. As part of an oil-producing region the challenges of shifting to a low carbon economy will be top of mind. It will be important to keep up the pressure for high ambition at COP 18.
The incremental pace at which multilateral processes move however does not help with the urgency needed in action. We should not only be relying on the multilateral process before we start acting on reducing emissions. Average global emissions should be peaking by 2015 at least, so a new agreement that is enforced by 2020 will be too late to achieve limiting global temperature to 2°C. Actions at national levels are already taking place in many countries and we need to look at how we can scale these up.
Durban’s outcome and implications for South Africa
There are two areas of consideration for us in South Africa. The first relates to the fact that the agreement reached in Durban did not result in ambitious actions to deal with climate change. This will have an impact on how we deal with the reality that climate change will have increasing impacts on our society and economy. South Africa is vulnerable to climate change and we would need to ramp up our adaptation plans to deal with this.
The second relates to the new agreement in 2015. It is now clear that a post 2020 climate agreement will have legal force. Up to now developing countries like South Africa were not legally bound to taking actions. Now we will be. This means that South Africa’s Copenhagen pledge to reduce emissions by 34% by 2020 and 42% by 2025 from below business as usual could become legally binding. We cannot wait for 2015 to plan for this. We need to be ahead of the curve.
The government has already adopted the White Paper on the National Climate Change Response that provides the framework for such planning. This includes determining the carbon budget for the country. How such a budget will be shared by sectors of the South African economy and society is the challenge that we will need to address. Businesses especially will need to prepare for this. Shifting their production and consumption patterns from high carbon and energy intensity will need forward planning and investment decisions will need to be made now.
An additional challenge for South Africa will be how the global carbon space will be allocated. The UNFCCC negotiations will be tasked with addressing the issue of the equitably sharing of carbon space. Given South Africa’s emissions profile, now and historically, we might end up with less of a carbon budget than identified in the White Paper.
We also need to prepare for actions already being taken by developed countries in relation to carbon footprint. The EU’s legislation on Aviation emissions is a signal of what will happen. Exports will be affected if our products continue to have a huge carbon footprint. Given that our energy supply is dominated by fossil fuels we are currently at a disadvantage. A scaled up and urgent rollout of Renewable Energy is needed now.
Whichever way we look at it we need to plan and prepare for these changes. We need to build our resilience as an economy and a society now. And we need to do this in a manner that addresses our developmental challenges at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive.We can move our economy and society towards a path of sustainable development. What we need is an understanding that South Africa is not isolated.
We are part of a global system, a climate system as well as an economic and political system. It does not help to put our heads in the sand and say that we can wait for others to act first. Inaction will be costly and early movers generally benefit.