COPping the heat (and the procrastination) in Durban

The beachside city of Durban is packed, with 10,000 people from 194 countries in town for the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to negotiate the next step in the process of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

It’s also the 7th meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP7), the mechanism through which the Protocol is implemented, and the central subject of this meeting, as nations wrestle with what arrangements can be put in place to replace or extend the agreements under the Protocol which expires in 2012.

The focus to date has been on drafting, negotiating and agreeing proposals for each country’s Ministers to use when they begin to negotiate the shape of the new commitments next week. There are concurrent discussions on the mitigation efforts agreed in Cancun last year, outstanding commitments from the Bali Action Plan of 2007, and intense discussions on both the volume and rate at which contributions to the Green Climate Fund are delivered to assist developing nations cut emissions and adapt to climate change.

Several countries, including Australia have put forward proposals for a new treaty that would provide for implementation of the Convention post 2012. Ideally, this would also cover the commitments being negotiated under the Long term Cooperative Action (LCA) plans begun at Cancun, which includes mitigation strategies by countries such as the US currently outside the Kyoto Protocol.

In a demonstration of negative peer influence, US recalcitrance is now being echoed by its northern neighbours, Canada, who earned themselves “fossil of the day” award on day one of the negotiations by indicating their intention to withdraw from the Protocol when it expires next year. This surprised no-one, as Canada has been falling short of their commitments for some time, but their hostility to the process was somewhat unprecedented, given the comments by the Canadian Environment Minister that signing Kyoto has been “one of the biggest blunders” ever made by their national government.

The glaring chasm in the discussions is the gap between stated commitments of countries to cut emissions and those recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 4th Assessment Report (and confirmed by more recent evaluations, such as the Australian Climate Commission’s Critical Decade report in May). (This ‘discrepancy’ was acknowledged in the Cancun Agreements, but subsequent indications of willingness to act and the negotiations here suggest there is a widespread delusional disorder among many nations that postponement will not carry profound risk and that delay due to poor political appetite is somehow justified).

Other issues being negotiated here include the establishment of common accounting methods for measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) of emissions reduction efforts, including international offsets. This is key to transparency and accountability, and a vital underpinning of any international agreement. There is much that is unknown about many of these commitments to date however (eg how emissions will be achieved, what gases will be covered, what accounting systems, and what sectors will be covered).

In the meantime, many nongovernment organisations (NGOs) are focussing on the kinds of climate change issues that affect the welfare of people – trade, markets, gender, global justice, finance, and health.

Health is receiving more attention than at previous COPs, with the largest ever health delegation to attend the international climate talks in Durban. There are scores of health organisations from more than 30 countries and dozens of health-related side events. Over 200 delegates will attend the Global Climate and Health Summit on Sunday where the establishment of a global climate and health coalition is proposed.

Mentions of health in the negotiating texts are few and far between however, but health NGOs are working hard here to encourage countries to embed health messages into the discussions and stated ambitions, by highlighting the serious and increasing risks to health from climate change, as well as the substantial and immediate benefits to health from strategies to reduce emissions.

Australia’s role appears more cooperative rather than at earlier meetings, and the delegation coasting on a bit of goodwill for getting some form of climate policy legislation passed. Questions are still being raised however about its role in holding out for a loophole in the rules for land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) which allows Australia log and burn native forests without having to account for the emissions this causes.

And there is no room for complacency in assuming the Clean Energy Future legislation is anywhere near enough for Australia to meet its obligations: a study out this week shows Australia needs to do much more to meet even its own 5% by 2020 target, much less the ambitious reductions required to keep warming stays below 2°C agreed to in Cancun, or the 1.5°C maximum sought by Pacific and some African nations.

Along with most other nations, Australia needs to substantially raise its ambition. This requires much stronger targets: its contribution to the global task of emissions reductions must be consistent with its emissions profile as well as a fair share of the global task – cognisant of the commitments already in place from other countries.

Its important to be aware that many other countries are meeting their (admittedly inadequate) Kyoto commitments and many are implementing climate policy: eleven other nations with whom Australia trades now have a price on carbon; fourteen have renewable energy targets; many more have policies such as emissions performance standards, feed-tariffs, and subsidies or incentives for energy efficiency or renewable energy technology. Despite having been hit by the eurozone crunch much harder than Australia, the UK, for example, is still committed to reductions of 50% by 2020. Global investment in renewable energy hit US$211 billion in 2010 and this despite the global economic downturn.

The key messages from NGOs here in Durban are that: Australia’s current target is inadequate;

  • other countries are taking action;
  • strong domestic national policy is key to other countries taking action: and
  • there are important national benefits for emissions reductions that are available immediately.

But Australian officials need to do a better job both here in Durban and at home to create a compelling narrative for strong climate action. There are many ‘frames’ through which climate action can be positively viewed i.e. benefits to health, risk management, and low carbon market opportunities – all of which are real, and available right now.

The community must be made aware of the opportunities; and the consequences of further delay. And distortions of the science by those with vested interests must be exposed, as one presentation here today suggested for the “assault on humanity” that it is.

While many of the negotiations here are taking place behind closed doors, there is a vital role for observers in tracking progress and spreading the word on how the talks progress.

As these talks continue, I hope people back at home are following, and letting their representatives know that they expect a positive outcome. Time is short: very short, according to the recent International Energy Agency report.

Please don’t switch off, Australia – we’ll all COP it if you do.

This happens to be our 100th post.