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COP 17 and what is to be done about mitigation

20th January 2012

By: Harald Winkler


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The climate negotiations in Durban led to agreement on four broad aspects. The negotiators agreed to continue under the Kyoto Protocol for a few more years. At the same time, a new agreement will be negotiated by 2015, taking effect from 2020 – the Durban Platform was the second major piece. Thirdly, the negotiators put the Green Climate Fund (GCF) under multilateral control. And they also agreed a 55-page decision on implementation under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

So multilateral negotiations on climate are on a slight upward trend – but what does this mean for South Africa? This article explores the implications, especially in relation to mitigation.


The talks came close to no result at all. That would have been even worse for climate change and its impacts on poor, vulnerable people. The choice at the end of the Durban negotiations was between negotiating a new legal regime for all, but later, or no deal at all.

Measured against what the climate needs, the Durban outcomes are clearly not enough. The commitments agreed on are weak, putting the world on a path to temperature increases of 3.5 ºC or more. In relation to what was possible politically, they are quite strong, and exceeded the expectations of most negotiators and observers. While the climate needs a new treaty right now, geopolitics simply did not allow a breakthrough of a ‘big bang’ kind. Durban was more like a slow, tectonic shift.


Durban agreed to increase the level of ambition – but not now. That is not enough. It remains true that the contents of the deal is not what the climate needs. ‘Slow’ is terrible for the climate. There is no good balance in mitigation, which made African negotiators quite unhappy. A fair, effective and binding outcome is crucial for Africa, which is a region most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – and with the least capacity to adapt.

Durban saw some discussion on the ‘emissions gap’ – the gap between pledges and the politically agreed goal of keeping temperature increases below 2 ºC. The decisions talk about both developed and developing countries doing more to bridge that gap.

Developed countries did not move from their commitments and targets set in Copenhagen and ‘anchored’ in Cancún in 2010. For the US, there are some slow moves to convert targets for single years into tons of carbon dioxide equivalent over a period of time. But this language too was dropped from the final text. Several developed countries have pledged ranges, which are listed in the Kyoto amendment. Australia, for example, pledged reductions of between 5% and 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, depending on conditions. Most of those, according to its own analysis, have been met. At least moving within those ranges should be possible, particularly if developing countries are seen to move.

Mitigation actions by developing countries can best be described as less unambitious. They are ‘more ambitious’ relative to what developed countries are doing, but when looked at in the context of keeping temperatures below 2 ºC, it is still well short of enough.

One possible solution is a registry, aiming to link mitigation action by developing countries through support. Durban did take the registry a step forward, but it is a Web-based platform, supported by a ‘dedicated team’ in the UNFCCC secretariat. It is up to developing countries to put forward well-formulated actions for the incre- mental costs of acting on mitigation. The system to match these proposed actions must evolve rapidly and across a range of financing sources and instruments.

Setting clear targets and then reporting progress against them are central to effective action on mitigation. A major focus in Durban was on transparency. For developed countries, key sticking points are comparability of efforts and, ultimately, compliance. For developing countries, the key is that mitigation actions will be ‘measurable, reportable and verifiable’ (MRV) – and that support is similarly quantifiable.

MRV for developing countries will entail national communications every four years, whereas fre- quency was previously not set. For countries like South Africa, biennial updates will be expected on core elements, including mitigation actions, greenhouse-gas inventories, institutional arrangements to deliver these and information on support received. Little work was done on domestic MRV but this will receive detailed attention in 2012.

South Africa’s national policy, as gazetted in the White Paper, provides a solid basis for a sensible domestic MRV system. South Africa’s mitigation actions will be monitored against the national emissions trajectory range, with a domestic MRV that will “assess progress in their implementation”. More work will be needed to set in place practical and mandatory reporting requirements sector by sector, while avoiding duplication – not submitting the same information twice.

The detailed data requirements and cooperation among various actors at national level will need to be set in place soon, with the Department of Environmental Affairs playing a coordinating role. Together with work on sectoral carbon budgets over the next two years, and finding support for early actions, this is the heart of taking action on climate change.


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