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COP 17 – waiting for light at end of tunnel

2nd December 2011

By: Saliem Fakir

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Some predictions are easy and others require a savant’s wisdom to penetrate the unseen world. One can be sure the outcome of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change seventeeth Conference of the Parties, or COP 17 – being held in Durban from November 28 to December 9 – will be hard to predict. However, the signposts have already gone up as to the direction COP 17 will take.

In the background sits squatting, on the creaking knees of international governance, this heavyweight of the emergent seismic shifts shaping the internal processes of COP 17 from the outside – the world is not as it was in 1992, when the first climate agreement was sealed. Then the world was pretty much a unipolar world; now, it is different.

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Even doubters of South Africa’s capacity to deliver a sound outcome, the same people who doubted our ability to host the 2010 soccer World Cup, will have to think hard about where they place blame. South Africa, nonetheless, has to lead well and seek every possible way to preserve the integrity of the multilateral system, even if all else fails.

What delegates should not leave Durban with, as, sadly, was the case at Copenhagen, is that poor leadership was the cause of a fiasco.

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The developed economies are simply not coming to the party. The first commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol comes to an end in 2012. Japan, Canada and Russia say they have no interest in a second commitment period. The US never really came on board. China and India are not willing to sign a legally binding agreement. This general unwillingness to budge and make compromises has reduced the convention to a game of words where economic interests have taken precedence over everything else.

The Kyoto Protocol is unlikely to be renewed. It was one of the few legally binding instruments, even in an imperfect state, that could hold coun- tries to account for their greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. We learnt from the first commitment period of the flaws and weaknesses in the Kyoto Protocol. The next round, if the negotiations go well, will turn out a much better product. But that would be foolish thinking because a multilateral environmental agreement is not without its own political economy. When the first international climate convention was born, developed-world countries were creditor nations or at least looked like they were in the money.

But today the picture looks different: they are highly indebted and Europe is not yet out of its financial crisis as Greece looks like it will end up defaulting on its debt payments. Everything hangs on the weakest tether. The continuation of the Kyoto Protocol is key to holding the climate change convention together. Without it, everything else becomes superfluous, and the ambition of countries to meet the required emissions targets would require a big push. The pledges which were made two years ago are well below what is required to keep temperature increases below 2 ºC.

Where the hopes of the Kyoto Protocol looked dismal, there was a posibility that even if no legally binding agreement was possible, money would flow and enable action on the ground. Cancun ended with some euphoria that a green fund would be established by COP 17. But a meeting of the transitional committee for the green fund in October in South Africa poured cold water on the idea. Two countries put roadblocks on what initially looked like smooth sailing on the green fund. No consensus was reached after Saudi Arabia and the US objected to key elements of how the green fund would work.

The majority want the fund to be overseen by the COP, but the US would prefer the fund to be fairly autonomous from the COP, with a dotted reporting line to it.

That is what one gets for a consensus- based approach, which is how the UN system works. It all ends up as hot air and an endless sequence of meetings in large brightly lit halls where air conditioners run full steam till late in the evening and many air miles are accumulated by thousands of participants each year.

For now, the light at the other end of the tunnel is not visible, and not even a dim flicker is in sight. This should not stop national action. If anything, this is where progress will be made despite the lack of progress at the negotiating table. Action must simply continue, and indeed it is. Some of the good stories are coming from national activities. So, watch that space.

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