Climate change treaty in sight

Editorial, Normal

The National, Tuesday 3rd January 2012

AS we welcome 2012, we also commend world leaders on the comprehensive global treaty on climate change agreement reached for the first time at the talks in Durban, South Africa, last December.
The two-week Durban meeting, attended by more than 190 countries agreed to start work on a new climate deal that would have legal force and, crucially, require both developed and developing countries to cut their carbon emissions.
The terms now need to be agreed by 2015 and come into effect from 2020.
The agreement – dubbed the “Durban platform” – is different from the other partial deals that have been struck during the past two decades, with developing countries, including China, the world’s biggest emitter, agreeing to be legally bound to curb their greenhouse gases.
Previously, poorer nations have insisted that they should not bear any legal obligations for tackling climate change, whereas rich nations, which over more than a century have produced most of the carbon currently in the atmosphere should.
Another first is that the US, the second biggest emitter, also agreed that the new pact would have “legal force”, a step it flirted with in 1997 with the Kyoto protocol, but abandoned as congress made clear it would never ratify that agreement.
All of the world’s biggest economies and emitters already have targets to cut emissions between now and 2020, when the new deal would come into force.
But many commentators view these targets are voluntary, not legally binding. The EU and many others fear that voluntary targets are too easy to wriggle out of.
However, the deal did little to address the scale of emissions cuts needed, and environmental groups said this was a huge failing.
Commentators were of the opinion that governments have salvaged a path forward for negotiations, but are under no illusion, saying the outcome of Durban leaves us with the prospect of being legally bound to a world of 4C warming. This they believe would be catastrophic for people and the natural world. Commentators say governments have spent crucial days focused on a handful of specific words in the negotiating text, but have paid little heed to repeated warnings from the scientific community that much stronger, urgent action is needed to cut emissions.”
While all nations are obliged to reduce emissions, how much will global emission be reduced and by when are some unanswered questions that negotiators continue to push them around. Many commentators are of the view that the ambitions to keep the temperature raise at 4C may be nowhere near to prevent disasters that are likely to occur across the globe.
Important decisions on implementation of the cuts of emissions, how this burden will be shared between developed and developing countries, and how all this will be enforced are uncertain.
Lord Stern, former World Bank chief economist and author of the landmark 2006 review of the economics of climate change, said: “The outcome of the summit is a modest but significant step forward. The decision to move towards a unified system, with all countries having some form of legal commitments, removes an important obstacle and could allow, for example, the US to play a more participative and constructive role in the future.”
The agreement reached also ensured that developing countries will soon begin to gain access to billions of pounds in finance from the rich world to help them move to a green economy and cope with the effects of climate change.
Papua New Guinea, for example, needs to understand how we fit into such agreements as the issue of climate change is of paramount to more than 80% of the six million-odd people.
We need to understand what would be done to achieve the required rate of reducing emission and whether the funding available could cater of the expected cuts.
While it is not clear what exactly rich countries are targeting by establishing this fund, reducing or minimising deforestation is obvious. But deforestation may not work well for many developing nations including PNG who depend on it for income.
Many commentators have cited the Cancun Agreements concerning REDD+ (Reductions in Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) as another cause for optimism.
After all, deforestation causes roughly as many emissions globally as transportation does, and the agreements pledge to give developing countries financial incentives to leave forests standing. If that has to happen, the incentives should match the likely income that would have come from harvesting forest.
 Developing countries need to make a realistic approach to this and work out whether their expected income from harvesting forest can be compensated from the Green Climate Fund.
Such realistic figures could form the basis of negotiations and should help development of guidelines on how the fund is managed and disbursed.
The outcomes of Durban provide a welcome boost for global climate action. They reflect the growing, and in some quarters unexpected, determination of countries to act collectively. This provides a clear signal and predictability to economic planners, businesses and investors about the future of low-carbon economies.
A number of specific commitments agreed in Durban also indicate that previous decisions on financing, technology and REDD+ are moving to implementation.
The big question many will ask is how this will translate into actual emission reductions and by when?
Whatever answer will emerge in the coming months, Durban has kept the door open for the world to respond to climate change based on science and common sense rather than political expediency