The 2011 UN Climate Summit Begins in Durban


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The 2011 UN climate Summit commenced 28 November, in Durban, South Africa and is due to run for two weeks. The main objective of the meeting is to establish a new climate treaty to replace or extend the Kyoto Protocol when it expires at the end of 2012. Prior to the meeting, it became clear that individual nations were polarized in their expectations from Durban.

Opening of the UN Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa. Credit: Jan Golinski/UNFCC

The Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in December 2007, and came into force in February 2005. The Protocol committed 37 industrial nations, plus the European Economic Community (EEC), to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 5% below 1990 levels by 2012. The Kyoto Protocol countries only include 15% of the world’s emissions, and, to date, greenhouse gas emissions have increased.

Two Sides For a Climate Change Agreement

Ahead of the UN Climate summit in Durban, two groups of countries have emerged.

  1.  Some developing nations and the EEC are looking for binding agreements to limit global warming to 2C or less. Some small island states, thought to be most at risk from climate change, are looking for agreements to limit warming to less than 1.5C. Agreements signed now could be in place by 2015.
  2. A second group of countries want to put off action until 2018 or even 2020, preferring to use the intervening period as a time to gather more scientific evidence. These countries include USA, Canada, Russia, Japan, Brazil and India, which include some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases.

The Scientific Context of the Proposed Aims

Delegates celebrating the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Credit: Japan times/UNFCC.

The proposed aims of the two groups of countries need to be put in the context that no global progress has been made towards achieving the Kyoto agreements. Will any new agreement fare better, or, as in Kyoto, will the delegates be apparently more interested in celebrating their words with handshakes?

From earlier scientific research (Meinshausen, M., et al., 2009),  it is already clear that immediate action is needed if the 2C limit is to remain realistic. This is partly because of the committed warming in the climate system: even without increases in greenhouse gases, the atmosphere will continue to warm until the receipt of energy from the sun and the emission from the earth become balanced.

The UNFCC provides some basic facts and figures. It quotes 450 ppmv (parts per million by volume) CO2 as the level at which the 2C global warming figure is exceeded. The UNFCC website indicates “current” values of 370 ppmv. The average CO2 for 2010 was 389 ppmv, significantly closer to the 450 ppmv level. The preindustrial amount was 280 ppmv. The 1.5C figure, desired by many developing nations, now looks scientifically unrealistic, unless new technologies are invented to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

It might be argued that putting off action on climate change while more research is done will save money and clarify the risks. Research is cheap compared with action, but do we really need to know more before taking some action? Also, in the long term, the Stern Report indicated that early action to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions would likely save money in the long run.

Countries Causing Most Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Three different ways of interpreting the CO2 emissions data. Credit: CDIAC/Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

The figure shows three comparisons between the emissions of different nations. There are several ways to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.   However, it seems to this writer that the largest commitments should be made by the countries with the largest per capita emissions. The UK’s climate secretary has been reported by BBC News as suggesting that each developing country should pledge action according to their level of development. Such a strategy would have applicability to all countries, developed and developing. It would also apparently avoid the logjam between the USA and China, with the USA not wanting to take action without action from China. China does not see the need to respond strongly while USA has one of the highest per capita emissions.

While the developed nations have the resources to make significant reductions, it is the developing nations that are often the unfortunate victims of climate change. This includes recent reports which suggest that one of the largest effects of climate change may be the increase in weather extremes such as severe storms and increases in floods and droughts. In addition to these direct effects, Oxfam has recently reported that food security is affected significantly by weather extremes, which disadvantage developing countries.

Looking Ahead to Durban

No doubt if previous summits are anything to go by, the delegates will practice brinkmanship. Don’t expect any agreements until the last moment, if at all.


Meinshausen, M. et al., (2009), Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2°C, Nature 458, 1158-1162. Accessed 28 November 2011.

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