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Durban conference advances the global agenda

12 December 2011 - 01:52 By Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver

Overall hosting of the COP

The organisation of the conference was well handled, despite the late start, and we received praise as hosts from many quarters. The expo adjacent to the COP precinct was a colourful display of leading South African technology.COP president Maite Nkoana-Mashabane ran a transparent and inclusive process and was brilliant in the closing moments of the deal. Some delegates criticised her for being light on content and a chaotic last two days, in which sessions were poorly coordinated.

Agreements on mitigation

Two goals for mitigation were set - a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol and the establishment of a long-term treaty that imposes binding targets on developed and developing countries. Previous COPs had skirted the issue.

This COP achieved both. There is an agreed second commitment period, though its ratification might be delayed for logistical reasons. It is not clear whether all the "annex 1" countries will actually sign up to it, and Canada has already indicated its intention not to. Japan might also opt out.

In parallel, countries have agreed to initiate negotiations leading to a "legal instrument, protocol or agreed outcome with legal force", applicable to all countries, that will be adopted by 2015 and be fully operational no later than 2020.

Though this COP has reaffirmed the goal of limiting the increase in global average temperature to below 2C above pre-industrial levels, it is clear that the ambition and scope of country commitments are inadequate. Even if the most ambitious emissions targets are met, this will exceed what is required by an estimated 5gigatons of CO²-equivalent emissions.

This COP has also resulted in a strengthened framework for including emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, which will help protect the world's forests.

Agreements on adaptation

In holding this COP on African soil, South Africa wanted to put adaptation to the effects of climate change firmly on the global agenda. The COP decisions established an adaptation committee that will spearhead global work on adaptation, and agreed that countries will prepare national adaptation plans. This has strengthened the international adaptation programme. The Durban mayor's summit brought more than 100 mayors from cities around the world together to adopt the Durban Adaptation Charter.

The Green Climate Fund

The main objective for COP 17 was to set up the Green Climate Fund agreed to in Cancun, Mexico, last year. The COP approved the detailed design of the Green Climate Fund, which minister Trevor Manuel steered through a year of difficult negotiations. Though no firm commitments have yet been made to capitalise the fund, its design includes innovative mechanisms for bringing private sector and market mechanisms into play, so as to increase the flow of funding into climate-change responses.


Technology transfer and the establishment of structures to facilitate it was another key goal for COP17. This COP set up a technology executive committee as the policy-making body on technology issues, and established its procedures and modalities.

Working in synergy with the Climate Technology Centre and Network, the committee will substantially strengthen the UNFCCC's operational arm on technology. The COP has initiated the process of selecting a host for the Climate Technology Centre and Network, which might be a developing country.

A people's COP

The level of public awareness and mobilisation on climate issues increased substantially as a result of the COP. The COP president succeeded in bringing NGOs and civil society closer to the negotiations. Last Saturday was a day of action by civil society, with a multitude of communities and NGOs marching under the banner of climate action. The business community held the largest number of side events and activities associated with a COP, and it was encouraging to see the extent to which investment in green technologies and jobs is paving the way to a low-carbon economy. These actions by civil society groups outside the negotiations have helped put the importance of an ambitious climate regime firmly on the agenda and have increased pressure on negotiators for a binding legal agreement.

There were a few instances in which robust protest action by civil society was managed in a heavy-handed way. The volunteers employed for the conference were clearly all ANC Youth League members, and clashed with civil society groups both on the day of action and at President Jacob Zuma's consultation with civil society. This made South Africa look like goons.


The Durban outcome is historic and precedent-setting, and significantly advances the global climate- change agenda. In terms of the mitigation effort, this COP has been characterised by a willingness by all parties to move beyond entrenched negotiating positions and rhetoric and engage with the development of a carbon-constrained environment in a more open and flexible way. This is a significant and hopeful step forward.