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Will Durban Pick Up Where Cancun Left Off?

By Dr. Orr Karassin

DURBAN, South Africa (Nov. 28, 2011) — Two years ago, negotiations over a new worldwide agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions “rolled over and died” at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen. Attempts were made to revive them at last year's conference in Cancun. This year's conference, which opened today, must try to “stabilize the patient’s condition.” In the meantime, fewer than 12 months remain until the previous agreement, known as the Kyoto Protocol, expires. Despite all of this, the impression here is that the countries that hold the key to remedying the situation are not feeling the sense of urgency necessary to spur signing the agreement required to stabilize the rise in temperature which is projected at a maximum of two degrees over the next 100 years. And there is a broad consensus that an inability to meet this target will have disastrous effects worldwide.


This year's conference is not expected to lead to a final agreement that will replace the Kyoto Protocol, but we hope that it will pave the way for a binding agreement for 2015—2020. For this to happen, solutions will have to be found for some of the main points of contention scheduled to be discussed at the conference.


The future of the Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in Japan in 1997 and came into force in 2005, established for the first time binding reduction targets for 37 countries defined as  “developed.” These countries were to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions by an average of 5 percent as compared with 1990 levels, over the period between 2008 and 2012.


However, a number of the major players in the emissions arena, i.e. the world carbon market, were not included among the countries bound by the Kyoto Protocol’s demand for a  significant reduction in emissions. China — which since 2005 has become the world’s greatest emitter and has become responsible for 17 percent of annual emissions worldwide — is not subject to binding emission-reduction demands. Neither is Indonesia, which produces 6 percent of annual worldwide emissions, or India, which produces 5 percent of annual worldwidel emissions.


Developed nations have been scurrying around since the Bali Conference in an attempt to renew the Kyoto Protocol and to seize the opportunity to include the United States — responsible for 16 percent of annual worldwide emissions — which refused to sign the Protocol at the time and continues to present a significant stumbling block in negotiations. It is not surprising that prior to this year's conference, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, described the five obstacles to the achievement of a binding agreement as “the U.S.A., the U.S.A., the U.S.A., the U.S.A. and the U.S.A.”


The United States is leading the developed nations’ demand for certain developing countries to be included in any such agreement, which will for the first time define binding emission-reduction targets for a number of countries whose economies are flourishing, such as China, Brazil, South Africa and India, which, in the period since the Kyoto Protocol was signed, have become major emitters.


The status and legal validity of the commitments

While the European Union will insist on a legally binding agreement that's complete with control mechanisms, supervision and sanctions against countries that have not fulfilled their obligations, most of the swiftly developing countries, while demanding binding commitments from the developed nations, are refusing to respond in kind and assume similar obligations themselves. This turmoil is further aggravated by the United States, which at present is preventing the creation of any legally binding formula because of its justifiable fear that such an agreement would not receive Congressional approval.


Funding climate-change adaptation and emissions reduction

While the binding legal aspects of the agreement are under siege by the Americans, there has been a certain degree of progress since the Cancun conference with regard to formulating complementary arrangements for the funding of operations relating to emissions reduction and adaptation to climate change. The Cancun agreement on the establishment of the Green Climate Fund is particularly worthy of note: This fund is to raise and distribute $100 billion in aid to developing countries every year. However, so far no agreement has been reached with regard either to the fund’s management mechanisms or, more importantly, to its sources of funding. These last points require discussion over disputed issues such as who will bear the burden of the funding, and what portion will be borne by the private sector.


Hope for Durban?

If we are looking for a glimmer of optimism as the 17th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change gets underway, we may hope for an agreement establishing the Green Climate Fund's funding and management. That would facilitate the provision of funding vital to many developing countries that are crying out for help in dealing with the damage caused by climate change. We would witness a transition in global policy on climate change, from responsibility (for reducing emissions) to obligation (to pay compensation for damage caused by climate change). Sadly, it doesn't look like we will see that transition this year.




Dr. Orr Karassin is a former Green Zionist Alliance representative to the board of directors of Jewish National Fund in Israel, and is an advisory-board member of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.




Orr's other dispatches from Durban are available here:


United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Durban



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