Durban for Dummies
What’s at stake at the international climate-change summit in South Africa
MIKE DE SOUZA
A two-week United Nations climate change summit in the South African coastal city of Durban begins Monday with nations far apart on negotiations to achieve a binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent dangerous changes in the atmosphere.
Governments from around the world have reached a consensus, based on the latest scientific evidence, that global warming is being caused by human activity and that it will lead to a range of consequences such as melting ice sheets, rising sea levels, and more severe storms and weather. But they believe they can reduce the impact of climate change by taking action now.
Here is some background on what’s at stake:
What is the Kyoto Protocol?
The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement that updates the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The original convention was signed in 1992 and came into force in 1994. The nations that signed the UN treaty, both developed and developing nations, agreed on the necessity to take measures to prevent human activity from causing dangerous interference with the climate. It also recognized that rich countries produced the emissions in their industrial development which are causing the changes in the atmosphere and must do more than their counterparts in the developing world.
“The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities,” reads the convention. “Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.”
The convention also stressed the importance of acting immediately to avoid potentially dangerous impacts instead of waiting for full scientific certainty. But since it had no legally-binding targets, the member countries agreed in Kyoto, Japan — following three years of negotiations — to set binding targets for the developed countries to reduce their emissions by establishing a system that put a price on greenhouse gas pollution on a carbon-exchange market.
The system was designed to allow polluters to buy credits to achieve their reduction targets, while green companies could sell credits and profit from technologies that reduced the emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere. The Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, but would only come into force after a sufficient number of countries had ratified it in 2005.
What were the targets?
Industrialized countries were required to reduce emissions by an average of five per cent below 1990 levels during Kyoto’s first commitment period of 2008 to 2012. Some countries negotiated targets which allowed them to increase emissions, such as Australia which had a target allowing them to boost their emissions to eight per cent above 1990 levels, while others like Canada agreed to reduce emissions by six per cent. The countries were expected to review progress over time and set a new commitment period for post-2012 that would eventually open the door to targets for developing countries.
India and China have signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but as developing countries, they do not have targets to meet under the agreement. However, they are required to produce national plans to address greenhouse gas pollution and climate change, and co-operate with developed countries on clean energy projects that are designed to reduce emissions in their developing economies. The United States signed the Kyoto Protocol, but never ratified it in Congress. The country is therefore not bound by its targets.
What is the Copenhagen Accord?
Failing to reach a binding deal to extend targets under the Kyoto agreement at a UN climate summit in 2009, a small group of countries, led by U.S. President Barack Obama, signed an agreement in Copenhagen, Denmark with voluntary targets. The deal was criticized by many developing countries that do not have adequate resources to adapt to climate change and are facing some its worst impacts.
Teaming up with environmental groups, these nations urged developed and emerging economies to build upon the existing Kyoto agreement to enforce legally binding targets. They also argued that the voluntary targets, even if achieved, would still lock the world into a dangerous concentration of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.
Nations negotiated a series of smaller agreements the next year at a summit in Cancun, Mexico that created new mechanisms to encourage the sharing of technology to reduce emissions and improve accountability on actions taken by each country to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.