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Climate change

The Durban platform

Conference achieves global commitment to reduce greenhouse gases as from 2020

Kyodo via AP Images / Glowimages

The opening of the conference on November 28: delegates decided to extend the Kyoto ProtocolKyodo via AP Images / Glowimages

The 17th UN Conference on Climate Change, held in Durban, South Africa, between November 28 and December 10, achieved a commitment from representatives from almost 200 countries, including the United States and China, the main potential polluters, to adopt targets for cutting carbon emissions. The negotiators overcame the impasse of the conferences held in Copenhagen, 2009, and Cancún, 2010, which had merely obtained promises of a voluntary nature, and also made advances with regard to the Kyoto Protocol that was approved in 1997, which established goals for cuts in emissions, but exempted developing countries from following them. The delegations, which exceeded the conference’s time limit by one day in order to achieve an agreement, left the South African port city in a climate of relief and joy.

The rest of the conference, however, is composed more of intentions than of palpable results. Countries did indeed commit to cuts by means of a “legally binding agreement,” which obliges them to comply with the goals, but the level was not defined, nor will it be in the short-term. Details will only come in 2015 and the agreement will only hold good as from 2020. There was progress in the negotiation of a Green Climate Fund to help poor countries deal with the consequences of global warming – the idea is to reach US$ 100 billion a year for this objective, also as from 2020. Something crucial remains to be defined: where the funds will come from. Talks also made progress towards creating a system capable of allowing payments to countries that reduce their carbon emissions by avoiding deforestation, which accounts for 15% of all global emissions. The negotiators established details about how nations are going to calculate their emissions and started talking about how the system is to function. The next conference, to be held in Doha, in Qatar, at the end of 2012, will reveal the degree of difficulty in making progress on these topics.

“Being realistic, there’s no guarantee that the promises will be kept, just as there’s no way of predicting what’s going to go wrong. Anything might happen,” says Paulo Artaxo, a professor at the Institute of Physics at USP and one of the coordinators of the FAPESP research program into Global Climate Change. He is predicting the resistance of the United States, but he also sees encouraging signs from other countries. “The oil industry lobby is very strong in the United States, but the European Union, even though it’s facing a severe economic crisis, made every effort to obtain an agreement. China is the country that invests most today in renewable energy in the world and Brazil has shown that it’s possible to drastically reduce emissions caused by deforestation; from 27,000 square kilometers cleared in 2004, we’ve fallen to 6000 square kilometers in 2010.”

What came out of Durban that was concrete was an extension of the Kyoto Protocol for a period of five to eight years – the precise period will be defined at Doha. It seems little, but it was not a trivial result. Created in 1997, the protocol is the only global treaty that establishes binding goals for countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. It is true that developing countries were exempt and the United States refused to ratify it, thus weakening its impact.

Extinction of the protocol, marked for the end of 2012, was seen as a backward step, to be avoided at any cost, and diplomats from the European Union and Brazil joined together strongly to avoid such a backward step. Even so, there was a setback: right after the conference, Canada, which had not managed to comply with the Kyoto goals, announced that it was abandoning the protocol. Russia and Japan had previously done the same thing. “The problem was pushed forward 10 years, which is clearly inadequate, because we could avoid a lot of carbon being thrown into the atmosphere during the next 9 years,” wrote physicist José Goldemberg, in an article published in O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper. “The fundamental thing, however, is that from now on the problem of carbon emissions is clearly everybody’s and not only for industrialized countries.”

The so-called Durban Platform modified the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) that was created by the Kyoto Protocol, by which countries can sell carbon credits to polluting nations if they undertake projects that reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The negotiators expanded the mechanism to include projects that promote the storing of carbon captured from the atmosphere. Thelma Krug, a researcher from the National Space Research Institute, who was part of the Brazilian delegation, says that the conference result is robust. “We were skating around in the same discussion and I couldn’t stand debating the same thing all the time, without making any progress. The Durban Platform will turn the page. The impact of not doing away with Kyoto and having something binding was extremely important,” she says; she was secretary of the Climate Change and Environmental Quality area at the Ministry of the Environment.

She highlights the troubled atmosphere in which the agreement was reached. “The specter of the global economic crisis overshadowed the threat from global warming. It was very difficult to talk about goals for cuts because of this.” She says, however, that the road is long and that it is becoming more and more difficult to prevent warming exceeding the 2 degree increase this century. The last analyses suggest that the world is moving towards seeing warming of 3.5 degrees by 2100. “What was done was to decide to do less now to accelerate later on. We have to believe that over the next few years, the economic situation will improve and technology will advance and offer new instruments for mitigating the effects of climate change and also that we manage to mobilize the authorities. We need to be optimistic, if not it’s no good sitting down to negotiate.” She is betting that the next report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which will be launched in 2013, will be able to supply scientific evidence that will help pressure the authorities and improve the terms of the agreement of 2015.

As often happens in conferences of this type, an agreement seemed impossible in the first few days of discussion. At the darkest hours in the negotiations, there were rumors of a complete postponement of any decision. In the midst of the disputes between rich and poor countries, the delegates from the European Union took the lead and began articulating the agreement. On the final stretch, what helped with the result was collective fatigue and fear on the part of the contenders of ending up as the villains of the conference.

Countries like Venezuela protested against the proposal outlines, recalling that the past emissions of the industrialized world are responsible for a good part of the current warming. Other developing countries, like Brazil and South Africa, were mobilized for agreement right from the start, using the argument that the growth in future emissions will come largely from poor countries. On the last day, China and the United States finally said yes. Only India resisted. A strong speech from the Minister of the Environment and Forests, Jayanthi Natarajan, demanding that the efforts of rich and poor countries be differentiated, suggested that the impasse would be maintained. However, the Indians also ended up accepting the agreement.