Durban Has Boosted Our Climate Ambitions


A fortnight ago, representatives from 194 countries converged on Durban to try and solve the climate crisis. All the countries, with their own competing domestic priorities, spent the last 14 days and nights negotiating in good faith — trying to find some sort of common ground that can inch us closer to locking in a binding, global agreement to reduce carbon emissions.

The conference ended on Sunday with an unprecedented deal whereby developing and developed countries will work together on a legally binding agreement to reduce emmissions. It will be written by 2015 and come into force after 2020. Many countries hailed the deal as a breakthrough — while commentators have been quick to point out that agreeing to have an agreement is not the same as coming to one: the real challenge will lie in getting all parties to agree on the fine print.

But the successes and shortcomings of Durban cannot be summarised as simply as some critics would like. With over 100 countries attending the conference having implemented domestic mechanisms pricing pollution, the conference kicked off on premise of action over rhetoric. At its close, substantial progress has been made and meaningful cooperation in the future looks more possible.

The Durban talks have concluded with countries committing to financing clean energy and helping less developed countries adapt to the realities of climate change. Given that the global community is yet to secure emissions targets strong enough to avoid dangerous climate change, the financial commitments of wealthier countries to aid less developed countries is particularly significant.

The African Group fought hard during the Durban talks for developed countries to assume some responsibility for the effects of climate change which are predicted to hit Africa first, and hardest. The infrastructure has now been established that will collect and allocate billions of dollars to adaptation and mitigation. This is welcome news for less developed countries and small island nation states like Tuvalu, many of which are already experiencing the unpredictable extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change.

A commitment to implementing a legally binding agreement has finally been made, so there’s now a roadmap for stronger, more tangible action in the future. The increased ambition present at the Durban talks is evidenced by major emitters the US, China and India pledging to lock in emissions targets — despite resisting this progress in the past. As the biggest emitters in the world, particularly the US, face hostile domestic environments, this is a crucial step forward.

There is criticism that the proposed agreement is too little too late — with the treaty to be drafted by 2015 and implemented by 2020. In light of the International Energy Commission’s recent findings that we may have less than five years to avoid devastating climate change, the disappointment and fear surrounding delays is understandable. If we continue to emit at current rates, we are facing a three to four degree increase in temperature with no hope of falling within the Cancun agreements to keep temperature rises within two degrees.

However, in the face of a global problem that will affect all countries, though in different proportions, multilateral cooperation and agreements is essential to mitigate the worst of the increasingly severe effects of climate change.

The continuation of the Kyoto Protocol is another significant, and much sought after, outcome of the talks in Durban. Even though the final amendments only secure the Kyoto Protocol for one more year, it is expected that many countries and groups including the European Union, will make binding commitments starting in 2013. The Kyoto Protocol historically wields much significance as the first treaty that produced a framework of legally binding targets. It is important because it ensures that countries remain bound to their targets in the period before the new protocol is implemented.

Australia previously did not have the domestic policies to ensure it met its international obligations. With the recently passed pollution pricing legislation, Australia now has the capacity to meet its targets. The onus is on Australia to catch up with international ambition and strengthen its emissions reductions targets in the spirit of cooperation and good faith fostered in Durban.

Coinciding with the conclusion of the Durban talks, Australia’s fourth national assessment of the state of Australia’s environment was released yesterday by Tony Burke. It outlines, among other things, Australia’s understanding of the contributors to climate change and our current management strategies. It investigates vulnerabilities of different regions and sectors of Australia to the worst impacts of climate change. Significantly, it reveals that IPCC predictions that Australia will become vulnerable to climate change impacts if 1-2 degrees of warming occur may have underestimated the proximity of the impact of climate change.

No country will escape the inevitable consequences of human behaviour over the last decades. Durban has provided a platform for international cooperation to avoid the worst case scenarios and to protect the most vulnerable. The conclusion of the talks in Durban are both a moment to reflect on the successes thus far, and to use those successes as a spring board to boost international ambition and action on climate change.

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