The short answer, in my opinion and that of many others, is “No.” In fact, I think it’s quite unlikely that this latest installment of the international climate change negotiations – officially it’s known as the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – will even result in a substantial, legally-binding agreement.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of excitement about the event, which is to be hosted in Durban, a city of some 3.5 million people on South Africa’s subtropical East Coast, from the 28th of November until the 9th of December.
The most pressing issue on the table will be the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement which was adopted at COP3 in 1997 committing industrialized countries to legally-binding reductions in their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As it stands today, the protocol comes to an end on the 31st of December of 2012.
With the World Meteorological Organisation announcing recently that atmospheric GHG levels reached record highs in 2010, Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, insists that the talks must focus on the very real threats posed by climate change and overcome any “short-term and narrow political considerations.”
The leader of South Africa’s negotiating team at COP17, Environment Minister Edna Morewa, told journalists that “some form of agreement” to extend Kyoto will have to be struck during the conference, even if it isn’t legally binding, but she emphasized the importance of a significant re-commitment to the process by developed countries.
A new study just released by UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, shows that climate change will exacerbate the already substantial vulnerabilities of South Africa’s children unless effective countermeasures and adaptations are implemented soon. This is just one of the many challenges we’re confronted with in the face of climate change.
The host country itself has a lot to answer for, however. South Africa is responsible for over 40% of Africa’s combined GHG emissions and ranks as the planet’s 12th largest emitter. It also has the dubious distinction of being home to the world’s biggest single point source of CO2 emissions, an oil-to-coal facility operated by a company called Sasol in the town of Secunda.
More than 90% of South Africa’s electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants, run by the state-owned monopoly power utility Eskom. What’s more, the state has signaled its continued commitment to this dirty and climate-damaging technology by building two new and gigantic coal plants with a final capacity of 4800 megawatts each. In comparison, its enthusiasm for renewable energy – in a country blessed with much sun and wind – has been criminally lukewarm.
On a more mundane level, the city of Durban itself is ready for the arrival of the conference’s 20,000 odd participants, a 1500-strong press contingent and some 20,000 members of civil society from around the globe. The road systems manager of the eThekwini Transport Authority (eThekwini is the metropolitan municipality that includes Durban and surrounding towns), Carlos Esteves, has ensured Durbanites that while they may expect a busier commute during COP17, there will not be any major traffic jams.
I’m afraid the same cannot be said about the negotiations and their capacity to deliver a meaningful international agreement and, more importantly, any globally effective climate change action.
Andreas is a book shop manager and freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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