FAQs: UN climate change conference in Durban

Delegates from about 190 countries gathered in Durban, South Africa, for a two-week conference beginning Nov. 28 that hopes to break deadlocks on how to curb emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.
Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Christiana Figueres speaks during a news conference in Durban next to the incoming COP 17 president Maite Nkoana-Mashabane (right). Almost 200 nations began global climate talks on Nov. 28 with time running out to save the Kyoto Protocol aimed at cutting the greenhouse gas emissions scientists blame for rising sea levels, intense storms, drought and crop failures. (Rogan Ward/Reuters)

Delegates from about 190 countries gathered in Durban, South Africa, for a two-week conference beginning Nov. 28. They hope to break deadlocks regarding how to curb emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

Hopes were scrapped for an overall treaty governing global carbon emissions after the collapse of talks at a climate summit in Copenhagen two years ago. The "big bang" approach has been replaced by incremental efforts to build new institutions to help shift the global economy from carbon-intensive energy generation, industries and transportation to more climate-friendly technologies.

But an underlying division between rich and poor countries on the future of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol has stymied the negotiators. UN officials hope for a decision on extending emission reduction commitments under the Kyoto accord, which has been postponed for two years. Previous commitments expire next year.

This is a look at what issues are on the table in Durban, and what's at stake:

What is the climate change conference in Durban, South Africa?
People participate in the Walk the Future event through the streets of Durban Nov. 27. The blue line highlights rising sea levels and the challenge of climate change. (Rogan Ward/Reuters)

The conference in Durban is being referred to in different ways by different groups. Call it the UN Climate Change Conference, the 17th session of the parties to the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC), COP17, and/or session seven of the Conference of the parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP 7).

Whatever people choose to call it, the main goal of the conference is to reach a new agreement on reducing the emission of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

Christiana Figueres, head of the United Nations climate secretariat, said the stakes for the negotiations are high, underscored by new scientific studies. Under discussion was "nothing short of the most compelling energy, industrial, behavioural revolution that humanity has ever seen," she said.

The conference is in session from Nov. 28 to Dec. 9.

Who will be there?

Representatives of governments from about 190 countries (including Canada),  as well as international organizations and NGOs will attend.

What is the UNFCCC?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was the climate change agreement reached at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 and signed by 154 countries.

The goal of the non-binding agreement was a reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, with developed countries assigned a greater responsibility for achieving that goal.

Every year after the agreement went into force a conference takes place, which makes Durban the 17th Conference of the Parties, or COP17.

What is the Kyoto Protocol?

The protocol is an international agreement (a "protocol to the UNFCCC") signed at the COP3 conference in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. It set targets for industrial nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and committed 37 countries to reduce their emission of specific greenhouse gases by 5.2 per cent from 1990 levels.
A protest against global warming in Montreal on Dec.3, 2005, that coincided with the UN Climate Change Conference in Montreal, where officials reviewed the Kyoto Protocol. (Ian Barrett/CP)

By the time it went into force in 2005, 141 countries had ratified it. That total did not include countries such as China, Australia or the United States, a country that was responsible at that time for about one-quarter of the emissions that have been blamed for global warming (the U.S. signed but has not ratified the protocol).

While Kyoto set out an agenda for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, "economies in transition," such as Russia, could pick different base years. There was a range of reduction targets, and some countries were even allowed to emit more greenhouse gases than they did in 1990. Developing nations had no reduction caps.

Kyoto was considered a first step toward addressing global warming and was not expected to solve the world's climate change problems by the time its first commitment period ends in 2012. For more on Kyoto see the Kyoto Protocol FAQ.

What is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a scientific body set up in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program. Through its creation, the UN was looking for a way to provide governments around the world with a scientific view of what was happening to the world's climate. While the panel, which includes leading scientists, does not do any research, it does review scientific and technical data from international sources. It has published four assessment reports, with a fifth due in 2013-14.

What is the Green Climate fund?

Developing nations that emit relatively little carbon dioxide per capita are already dealing with the effects of a warming world. High on the conference agenda is the management of a fund scaling up over the next eight years to $100 billion US annually to help poor countries cope with changing climate conditions.
Members of the Trans African caravan of hope, a campaign on climate justice, take part in a protest outside the COP17 venue in Durban. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

The $30-billion Green Climate Fund to help the developing world prepare for climate change is part of that $100-billion commitment made by developed countries at climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, in December 2010. Funds won't be distributed until 2020.

In Durban, a main point of contention will be whether progress can be made on the fund. A committee of 40 countries worked for the past year on drawing up a plan to administer the fund, but agreement on the final paper was blocked by the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Questions also remain regarding how those funds can be generated from new sources beyond established development channels from the West. Ideas on the table include a carbon surcharge on international shipping and on air tickets, and a levy on international financial transactions — sometimes called a Robin Hood tax.

Three University of British Columbia professors have said there needs to be accountability to ensure the fund actually succeeds in preparing the developing world for climate change. 

What issues lie at the heart of the debate about climate change?

An underlying division between rich and poor countries on the future of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol has stymied negotiators.

Poor countries want the industrial nations — who they say bear the brunt of responsibility for climate change — to commit to more cuts for a second period, saying the protocol is the only legal instrument ever adopted to control carbon dioxide and other gases that trap the Earth's heat.

But the wealthy countries, with growing consensus, say they cannot carry the burden alone, and want rapidly developing countries like China, India, Brazil and South Africa, whose levels of greenhouse gas emissions are also rising rapidly, to join their own legally binding regime and at least slow their emissions increase.

What is Canada's position?

The Harper government wants to keep Canada's targets in line with those of the U.S., which it says is necessary because of the close integration of the two economies.
Environment Minister Peter Kent announced $148.8 million over five years for climate change adaptation Tuesday. (CBC)

In a speech in Toronto on Nov. 8, Environment Minister Peter Kent set out his government's position for the Durban conference: "We will only support climate change agreements that are signed and ratified by all major emitters."

Then he added, "That's because we've already declared that however acute the international pressure, we will not agree to taking on a second commitment period target under the Kyoto Protocol." Kent stated that's because the Kyoto Protocol has not been signed by all of the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters, such as the U.S. and China.

He did observe that Canada's position is, "likely to cause some turbulence for us in the coming weeks."

Under the Kyoto Protocol, Canada committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to 6 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. In 2009 Canada's emission of the greenhouse gas CO2 were 20 per cent higher than in 1990.

Under the Copenhagen Accord, Canada committed to reducing emissions by 17 per cent below its 2005 level by 2020. In his speech, Kent said that Canada is about 25 per cent of the way to that target.

The Pembina Institute reacted to the speech by labelling Canada's position, "a continued 'head in the sand' mentality that falls desperately short of the expectations of Canadians and the international community." It called on the federal government to explain how Canada can help avoid catastrophic climate change and become "a constructive player in the international negotiations."

Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada's chief climate negotiator at the Durban conference, told Canadian Press he will be pushing for, "a new round of negotiations that would lead to a new, single, comprehensive climate-change regime," but one that will "create a level playing field and include all major emitters."

The Pembina Institute said, "Canada continues to be one of the reasons why it is difficult to be optimistic. Canada is coming into these talks in a very weak position and is not poised to contribute much in the way of positive solutions."

Are countries reducing their greenhouse gas emissions?

CO2 emission levels, 1990-2009

These are the changes in CO2 emission levels between 1990 and 2009 for a selection of countries and regions:

  • World overall change: +38%
  • China +206%
  • Middle East +171%
  • Latin America +63%
  • Spain +38%
  • Canada +20%
  • U.S. +6.7%
  • Germany -21%
  • East Europe Kyoto participants -36%
  • Latvia -64%

(Source: International Energy Agency, CO2 emissions from fuel combustion report.)

There is actually some good news here. The countries that are part of the Kyoto protocol in 2009 had carbon dioxide (CO2) emission levels that are 14.7 per cent below their 1990 level.

Developed countries together in 2009 were at 6.4 per cent below their 1990 level, after a 6.5 per cent drop between 2008 and 2009, a result primarily of the economic downturn. Those and the figues that follow come from a report prepared by the International Energy Agency for the Durban conference.

Worldwide CO2 emissions decreased 1.5 per cent from 2008 to 2009. However, the IEA estimates that emission levels increased in 2010 and will continue to increase, as consumption of fossil fuels increases. According to the IEA the increase is expected to be "in line with the worstcase scenario presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the Fourth Assessment Report (2007), which projects a world average temperature increase of between 2.4°C and 6.4°C by 2100."

Which countries are the largest CO2 emitters?

Since 2008, the developing world has accounted for most of the world's CO2 emissions (54 per cent in 2009). But just 10 countries are responsible for two-thirds of global CO2 emissions, with China and the U.S. combined output accounting for 41 per cent of global emissions. Canada is No. 8 on that list.

On a per capita basis, China's level is about one-third North America's. However, China's per capita level is 2.5 times higher than in 1990. Per capita levels for the U.S. decreased by 13 per cent.

What are the chances of success in Durban?

In a word, low.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has defended the results of the Copenhagen climate change talks as a significant step toward a binding agreement, despite criticism from world leaders that the process was flawed. (Heribert Proepper/Associated Press)

"Expectations are already at rock bottom regarding an international climate change architecture at the summit, and there is no reason to expect any upside," Divya Reddy of the consultancy Eurasia Group told Reuters.

Nov. 24 report by the Canadian environmental group The Pembina Institute echoes that view. "Comparing the frustratingly slow pace of international negotiations on climate change against the ever-increasing urgency of climate change science, it is hard to be optimistic.

The group see the world ontrack for irreversible and catastrophic climate change. "If that scenario is to be avoided, the world needs to do much more to stabilize global temperatures, and success will depend on getting an agreement into place as soon as possible."

Hope for an overall treaty on global carbon emissions has been low since the failure of the Copenhagen conference in 2009, and has been seen as even less likely as the economic downturn has worsened. "It's a tall order for governments to face this," the UNFCC"s Figueres said. "If it were easy we would have done it years ago."

With files from Associated Press