Durban:a positive step towards global CO2 cuts

17th January 2012

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World's big emitters commit to developing Kyoto Protocol successor, but binding targets are unlikely before 2020

The 17th meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban has been hailed as a success after all 194 member states signed an agreement to develop carbon-reduction targets following in the footsteps of the Kyoto Protocol.

The Durban platform for enhanced action was welcomed by environmentalists and governments as an important step towards a multilateral approach to tackling climate change because it includes, for the first time, the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse-gases, namely China, the US and India.

After previous meetings in Cancun (2010) and Copenhagen (2009) saw little progress, the platform commits the signatories to develop a new “legal instrument” outlining individual carbon-reduction commitments by 2015 and to implementing it by 2020.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, said that the agreement was a positive signal for businesses and investors of the global commitment to making the transition to a low-carbon economy. “Durban has lit up a broader highway to a low-emission, climate-resilient future,” she claimed.

However, the lack of detail on reduction targets, the length of the commitment period and the 2020 start date tempered the success of reaching a political consensus.

“Reaction to Durban has been very positive, but in terms of a clear business signal we really have to wait for the next stage of negotiations,” commented Andrew Raingold, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, a sustainable business think-tank. “Success will really depend on the detail of how emissions cuts are going to be made.”

David Symons, director at WSP Environment & Energy, said that the Durban platform followed other such treaties in failing to deal with the difficult details. “The platform provides the base, but not the pinnacle. We should celebrate the global commitment, but recognise that there has been precious little agreement on actually cutting emissions,” he said.

IEMA’s director of policy, Martin Baxter, agrees. “With years of negotiation ahead and legally-binding requirements potentially not coming into effect until 2020, we are looking at nine years where the vast majority of global emissions will be subject to voluntary action only.

"With voluntary targets countries put forward last year insufficient to stabilise world temperature increases at 2ºC, it seems very unlikely the new agreement will be in time to halt greater global warming.”

With the Kyoto Protocol due to expire at the end of 2012, Durban also saw the EU commit to extending its commitments under the scheme for another five years.

However, after the negotiations Canada announced its withdrawal from the protocol due to the cost of meeting its carbon-reduction obligations, which it estimated at £8.6 billion.

Baxter said Canada’s decision to withdraw highlighted the importance of global commitment to a follow-up.

“It is easier for a country like Canada to leave Kyoto when the world’s major emitters aren’t covered by it. If you have a globally ratified international agreement, then it would be much more difficult for countries to opt out of their commitments. But we need one sooner rather than later.”

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