Climate change talks: the road to Durban

10 January 2011

Before the much-anticipated 2009 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, the President of the Maldives decided to highlight the plight of rising sea levels threatening his country. Accompanied by 11 Maldivian ministers, President Mohamed Nasheed dived four meters underwater where he held the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting.

“What we are trying to tell the people is that we hope there is a better deal at Copenhagen,” the President said. “We are trying to send a message to the world about what is happening and what would happen to the Maldives if climate change isn’t checked.”

Two months later, President Nasheed and officials from 192 governments descended on the Danish capital to try and thrash out a comprehensive agreement. Fractious meetings with frustrated negotiators ensued, the result of which was the Copenhagen Accord. But far from being the “better deal” President Nasheed had spoken of, or the legally binding document which many governments and activists had called for, it was simply “noted” by the UN climate conference, as formal approval required consensus that could not be found.

A year on from Copenhagen and more efforts to call attention to the threat of climate change – including an activist pictured on a beach dressed as a polar bear – were played out both before and during last month’s UN climate change conference in Cancun, once again stressing the urgency for action from world leaders.

In the balance

This pressure to deliver in Cancun was all too apparent for those involved in the negotiations, explains Richard Baron, a climate change expert at the International Energy Agency (IEA).

“After Copenhagen the future of climate change negotiations of this global scale was left hanging in the balance,” he observes. “This put a lot of strain on the Cancun conference to succeed, otherwise there was a real possibility that countries would slowly abandon the UN process altogether and pursue their climate goals with small groups of similarly-minded countries. This would have led to a lack of international co-ordination that is absolutely crucial for a truly ambitious response.”

“Thankfully progress was made, and there is good reason to feel optimistic after the summit, which responded well to critics who questioned whether any progress could be made in a forum where all the world’s countries are represented.”

Back on track

The Cancun Agreements have anchored the emission reduction pledges made at Copenhagen in the formal UN process. They also establish a clear goal for the fight against climate change, with an appeal to keep the global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius.

One notable achievement which emerged was an agreement to set up a Green Climate Fund which will channel money to developing countries to help them with their efforts in cutting back on carbon emissions and countering the impacts of climate change. By 2020, the aim is for this Fund to channel part of the $100 billion a year that has been committed to support developing countries.

Another encouraging outcome was formal support for a new phased approach to the UN’s initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, referred to as REDD, which gives developing countries financial incentives to protect their forests. 

The decision to include carbon capture and storage (CCS) – a new technology, the sole purpose of which is to reduce CO2 – in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) was strongly welcomed by the IEA. The CDM is a scheme where developing countries earn credits for their emission-reduction projects. These credits, in turn, can then be traded and sold to industrialised countries as part of their efforts to meet emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. The IEA has long argued for the inclusion of CCS in this mechanism. The organisation’s Executive Director, Nobuo Tanaka, believes it is a “litmus test” for how serious governments are to address climate change.  

Yet despite these and other developments, Mr. Baron acknowledges that greater efforts are still desperately needed to effectively mitigate the impact of climate change.

Moving forward

“While Cancun made good strides forward, especially in terms of governance decisions – such as how best to disperse money – these global summits will never be a place where domestic policy is set,” says Mr. Baron. “So as well as adhering to the international agreements made in Mexico, countries must also take decisive action domestically in order to ensure continued progress.” 

One key area of focus for countries, Mr. Baron argues, is pushing for higher energy efficiency – also a critical contribution to countries’ energy security and to cost-savings for companies and householders alike.

Another focus is on boosting efforts to set a price on carbon emissions. This aim, he observes, is crucial because without putting a cost on CO2 emissions, investors will go on “business-as-usual”, when we need a radical departure from current energy choices. In addition, low-CO2 technologies need a policy boost as well.

“The IEA believes that these are crucial areas of focus for countries ahead of the next UN climate change conference in Durban this December,” Mr Baron says.

Contentious carbon cuts

Looking ahead to this conference in South Africa, Mr Baron believes that two significant and contentious talking points governments will be preparing for are setting a figure on emissions targets, and the debate over the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol.

The dispute over the Protocol – a landmark international treaty signed in 1997 – is whether to keep it in its present form, or wrap it up into a more global agreement.

With regard to carbon emissions cuts, the Cancun Agreements, which were adopted by consensus – Bolivia did object but was overruled – formally commits countries to reducing emissions, which is a step forward from Copenhagen. But the big question for Durban is whether governments can go further still and agree to emissions cuts in line with the aspirational goal of a less than 2 degrees temperature increase.

“If this ultimate goal is resolved,” Mr Baron says, “then the international community will have taken an enormous step forward in its united effort to combat climate change.” And in so doing, the Maldivian President’s call for a ‘better deal’ will be answered.

Factbox: One-minute interview with IEA climate change expert, Richard Baron

Do decisions at these summits have any impact on the everyday lives of the world’s citizens?
Yes, absolutely. Positive changes these conferences have brought about can be seen in everything from the cars we now drive to the modern electrical appliances – like refrigerators – in our homes, which are all much more environmentally friendly than they used to be. We can also see a difference in the variety of energy sources in our landscapes, such as wind turbines. Since 1990 wind power generation has grown 50 times. That simply wouldn’t have been possible without the agreements, like the Kyoto Protocol, which emerge from these summits.

How does the IEA contribute to international efforts to address climate change?
We advise our member countries on ways to develop their energy policies so they effectively address climate change. Part of this work involves teasing out examples of best practice and bringing them to the attention of governments, so they can emulate them. As well as this, along with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the IEA advises governments on the technical aspects of climate negotiations. UN climate negotiators often turn to us to elucidate on technical issues that arise.

Photo: ©GraphicObsession