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Will the planet be saved?

20th January 2012

By: Saliem Fakir


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Fourteen days of deliberations at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change seventeeth Conference of the Parties (COP 17) culminated in a diplomatic coup where, for the first time, countries agreed to negotiate a new treaty that will have some legal form or other that includes everybody – not just a binding agreement for rich countries.

This all happened in an early morning huddle of negotiators desperate to end COP 17 on a high note.


What has been hailed by President Jacob Zuma as the result of “South African magic” may well turn out to be hollow and yet another round of negotiations where nothing really happened. Achieving diplomatic coups is not the same as saving the planet.

In the end, what is punted as progress is not really progress – if one measures the achievements of COP 17 in terms of what is required by science. On this account, diplomatic success took us backwards rather than forward.


So, what was agreed? The Kyoto Protocol will continue, with European Union (EU) States agreeing to a second commitment period. But what they are committing to is nothing new, as the EU has already agreed targets by its member States. The EU’s commitments do not put any new ambition for emissions reductions on the table other than what has been agreed among its member States.

Japan, Russia and Canada have dropped out of Kyoto. Canada has earned the ire of environmental groups as it was seen in the past as being the most progressive government on climate-change issues. But large tar-sand finds in Canada, thought to contain even larger quantities of oil than Saudi Arabia’s oilfields, have made Canada more fossil-fuel focused. Canada is an example of a country that has literally given up on climate change negotiations. It does not view the Kyoto Protocol as being workable.

Negotiations for a second round of the Kyoto Protocol, involving the EU and a few other European States, will only be concluded by COP 18. But, as we know from all negotiations, nothing is a done deal until it is signed and sealed.

Who knows what new obstacles will ensue in the coming year or years? The ‘legally binding’ regime that is to be worked out by 2015 features the most ambiguous language and enough escape clauses to delay any intended implementation target date until 2020 if major players sought to do so.

By then, every major polluter will have to double its level of ambition because, by 2020, we will have moved from a 2 ºC global warming target to a 4 ºC target. Even in this round of negotiations, we could hardly meet our 2 ºC target, according to the ‘Gigaton Report’, issued last year by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Even if countries agreed to meet their emissions ambitions as set out in Copenhagen, we would only meet the required target 60% of the way.

The report, which is based on expert knowledge and modelling from nine different centres, notes that annual global greenhouse-gas emissions should not be greater than 40 Gt to 48.3 Gt of equivalent carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2020 and should peak sometime between 2015 and 2021. Estimated global annual emissions are around 56 Gt at present and the gap is expected to grow further with the surge of fossil fuel use in Asia, where demand is going to be the highest.

As far as the Global Climate Fund (GCF) is concerned, the raw frame, or architecture, of the fund was agreed on. When the final text was submitted by the transitional committee (this committee was cochaired by Minister in the Presidency responsible for the National Planning Commission Trevor Manuel), it seemed that some countries were happy to scupper any progress on the establishment of the fund. A compromise ultimately ensued, but what was agreed to is a shell that still needs filling.

There is still considerable work to be done on administrative issues related to the establishment and governance of the GCF and how the GCF will be financed. On the table for consideration are levies on bunker and aviation fuel and a financial transaction tax, besides other things.

If the GCF is established, it will have twice the budget of the World Bank. So, the GCF will be a significant institution relative to other international institutions of similar nature.
Diplomats have hailed COP 17 as a milestone. Perhaps this is true in relation to the fact that a new roadmap has been achieved that leads to a legal, or binding, agreement (again, whether this is legally binding or not is to be seen) for all – but if one measures the achievement of actual action, then, in this regard, for every step for diplomacy, we are two or three steps back on the science and the future of the planet.


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