All eyes on COP17 climate talks in South Africa

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | November 30, 2011 | Climate Change

Thousands of world citizens are once again converging in South Africa to take part in an international gathering observed by a global audience. Unlike attendees at last year’s soccer World Cup, it’s a safe bet that negotiators, government officials, activists and observers from 195 countries at the 17th annual climate talks in Durban, South Africa won’t be blowing vuvuzelas during the proceedings. Beyond that prediction, however, it is difficult to discern what progress will be made as negotiators struggle to find common ground in an ongoing effort to craft a global agreement to reduce carbon pollution.

Although world leaders who attended the Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 agreed¹ in principle to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate the threats of climate change, negotiators tasked with developing actual agreements that commit nations to actual reductions have had difficult work. A prime example of their challenge was the 1997 Kyoto protocol, the world’s only binding climate agreement. Even though U.S. officials actively negotiated the terms of the treaty at that year’s gathering of the Conference of the Parties (COP), the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the agreement and so it went into force in 2005 without the participation of the (then) world’s largest carbon emitter.

The talks in Durban, officially known as the 17th COP, are critical as we are rapidly running out of time to avert the worst impacts from climate change.  A new IPCC report issued by 200 climate scientists last week confirms that extreme weather events will become the norm as a result of a changing climate.  Additionally, the International Energy Agency issued dire warnings that the world has only five years to take the emissions-cutting measures needed to prevent catastrophic global warming.

A recent attempt to draft one such measure (and replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol) resulted in the non-binding, two-page Copenhagen Accord which acknowledges global temperature rise should be limited to 2C, but failed to include concrete goals to ensure the target is maintained.  This is something akin to offering swimming lessons to a drowning person.

To have a real chance at reducing global emissions and limiting temperature rise to 2C, negotiators in Durban must make progress on climate mitigation, adaptation, technology and finance while taking the first steps towards a legally-binding climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol in the coming years.  A heavy workload by any account and only possible with strong leadership from key countries. By the end of next week, we’ll know whether the U.S. intends to provide that necessary leadership for emissions reduction efforts or simply erect more stumbling blocks along the way.

1 – Note: this agreement was formally recognized as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC).

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