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Why Durban is unlikely to resolve the climate change stalemate

Governments will gather in Durban over the next two weeks for what has been dubbed as a “last chance” summit on climate change. But the urgent need for nations to set a timetable to tackle global warming is not matched by the hopes for success.


With 2012 marking the limit set by the landmark 1997 Kyoto Protocol agreement for nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, delegates at the 12-day UN sponsored Conference of Parties (COP) should feel compelled to agree on the next course of action.

But with hopes fading that the world’s rival industrialised nations will sign up to any meaningful agreements, the mood in Durban this week will likely be one of subdued realism. The disappointment that followed similar COP conferences in Copenhagen in 2009 and last year in Cancun has tempered optimism.

Mark Maslin, professor of Climatology at University College London (UCL), had a gloomy outlook. “It certainly does not look cheerful. I doubt there will be anything really dramatic to come out of Durban. If the wheels don’t come off the whole negotiating process then that will be considered as a success. Expectations are low at this moment in time.”

The European Union is keen on seeing a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol hammered out and is believed to be ready to commit to new targets even if other nations do not follow.

“The fact that the EU is going it alone in taking action is a very good indication of how bad negotiations have got,” said Professor Maslin.

Maslin believes the old stumbling blocks, notably China and the USA will once again impede progress. “The Chinese always say “why should we do anything if the United States does not”. This is the sticking point that will remain in Durban.”

The director of Climate Action Network Europe (CAN) Wendel Prio, who will fly out to South Africa on Thursday, is also rather cautious. “Expectations are limited because no one is showing any willingness to go beyond what has already been stated before. It’s a difficult period.

"We had high expectations going to Copenhagen in 2009 but we had a clear reality check. The pace of negotiations is very slow. We did get something out of Copenhagen and we are expecting to get something out of Durban. It will be better than nothing but it will be far from what is needed. It will never be enough compared to the urgency there is.”

The devastating floods in Thailand this month as well as this year's disastrous drought in Somalia are used as evidence that the impact of climate change is becoming ever more destructive. Despite the atmosphere of pessimism, delegates hope to make progress in several specific areas.

Extending the time frame of the Kyoto Protocol

In 1997, 37 nations known as ‘Annexe 1 countries’ signed up to reduce their combined greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 per cent of their 1990 levels. The deadline for achieving those reductions was set for December 2012. One of the goals of delegates in Durban will be therefore to try to extend the agreement beyond next year.

The chances of nations agreeing on a new target and time frame for cutting emissions appear nigh on impossible. Governments are likely simply to agree on nothing more than a future date to continue their talks.

“The problem we have is that the EU and many developing countries would like to have an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, finalised by 2015. But countries like the USA, Brazil, India and China would be quite happy if those negotiations only started in 2015. This shows the huge gulf between the nations,” said UCL Professor Maslin.

“The reason being that during a global recession, cutting their carbon emissions would be punitive to their economic development. They believe there are more pressing concerns.”

For Bob Ward, Policy and Communications Director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, there has to be an agreement in Durban to start the process of establishing a new protocol. “These are complex issues and we don’t have a great deal of time.”

Limiting Global Warming

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As part of the Cancun’s COP 15 conference held at the end of 2010, participating countries agreed to limit global warming in the 21st Century to a rise of two degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial temperatures. But the general view is that this target will not be met and that delegates in Durban need to take decisive action.

“This issue needs to be back on the agenda. The work of the UN programme shows the commitments made in Cancun are not sufficient. Governments have to recognise that we have not seen enough real progress since last year. That is a year we have lost in terms of action”, explains Maslin.

Stumping up aid for poorer countries

Governments in Cancun agreed to set up a “Green Climate Fund” worth around $100 billion a year by 2020. The aim was for richer countries to help their poorer counterparts invest in greener energies and reduce their emissions. The Redd programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degredation), which was an agreed scheme to assist developing countries in protecting their forests, has also suffered from a lack of financial support.

According to Professor Prio, money must be stumped up in Durban. “We really need to establish the Green Climate Fund in Durban and find out if we can actually get some money in it, because if it’s empty it will obviously not have a lot of impact. Because this conference is in Africa, there is huge expectation that money will be delivered for countries to invest in renewable energy.”


For many governments worldwide, the financial crisis is now of far greater importance than climate change. Bob Ward warns however those delegates who will choose in Durban this week to prioritise one issue at the expense of the other.

“As the financial crisis has shown – if you don’t act when you see the risks then they will come back and hit you hard. It would be ironic if we ignored the risks from climate change because we are so busy dealing with the economic crisis.”

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