Durban blog: Hope, alarm and the value of sandbags

As I write this, COP17, the international climate conference which began two weeks ago under a big storm cloud and torrential flooding, is about to enter the home stretch.

The sense of surrealism I mentioned in an earlier post reached its apex today. Just to the right of the bench I’m on, an amateur pianist sits tinkling the ivories on a grand piano, while to my left are three besuited delegates sprawled flat out and snoozing. A few metres in front of me someone has laid a row of sandbags – presumably in case of more heavy rain, although they’re placed a little too haphazardly to be of much use if the heavens open again.

All the last-minute negotiations before tonight’s closing plenary are taking place behind closed doors, so there’s a real buzz in the corridors as journalists and observers hang around hoping to catch the latest gossip.

There’s been a lot of that flying around in the past couple of days. Yesterday was full of surprises, with US Climate Envoy Todd Stern first declaring that the US backed the EU’s plan for a Roadmap on a legally binding treaty only to have his remarks very hastily “qualified” (great euphemism) by the State Department. It finished on a high note with the news that the EU, African countries, Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) were joining forces to call for an ambitious outcome to the talks. Meanwhile, in a real turn up for the books, Canadian Minister Peter Kent (he of the ‘no second Kyoto Protocol commitment period’, see earlier Durban blog post) said that 2015 was a “reasonable target to set to pull together any new climate change regime”.

So there’s definitely hope that something good will come out of COP17, something a bit more feisty than last year’s face-saving Cancún Agreement, even if it still falls far short of the action scientists tell us is necessary to avert catastrophic global warming.

The most sobering thing I’ve read this week – and goodness knows I’ve read a lot of pretty alarming stuff – was the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report on Bridging the Emissions Gap. This shows that by 2020, and assuming perfect implementation of countries’ current pledges under the UNFCCC, there will be a six gigatonne gap between what is required to limit global temperature rise to 2°C and actual emissions. So while the science says we should only be emitting 44 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent a year by 2020, we are actually on a pathway to emit 50 gigatonnes. This analysis is backed by a whole host of studies, including a recent report by the International Energy Agency. The IEA is a very long way indeed from the radical fringe, but its World Energy Outlook contains the ominous warning that “The world is locking itself into an unsustainable energy future which would have far-reaching consequences”.

So the global scientific community has made a compelling case that we are moments away from the point of no return, and communities around the world from Durban to Texas have already had a taste of what’s to come. Yet still the international community is hamstrung by Realpolitik in all its glory, with states approaching responsibility for the climate as if it’s something that can be divided up and shunted around. The problem is, it can’t be – climate change is our collective problem.

Having said this, it’s not all bad. As much of an obstacle as it has been so far, Realpolitik can actually be a powerful force for good. Earlier this week, I wondered if China was gearing up to be a climate leader. Now, that’s obviously a little premature but, nonetheless, a seismic geopolitical shift is underway and China is certainly beginning to carve out a role for itself on the international stage, as will no doubt be reflected in the way it behaves at future climate conferences.

Another reason for optimism is that as huge as that six gigatonne gap is, UNEP estimates that “emission reductions of between 14 to 20 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent are possible by 2020 and without any significant technical or financial breakthroughs needed”. In his foreword to the Emissions Gap report, Achim Steiner, the Executive Director of UNEP, lists accelerated action on HFCs as one of the priority areas which would help buy us time to nail down meaningful and legally binding commitments to slash carbon emissions before the climate reaches a devastating tipping point.

In that sense, action on HFCs would serve a similar purpose to the row of sandbags I am sitting near: by no means a definitive solution to the problem, but still a powerful tool to keep the floodwaters at bay for a while.

That’s precisely why EIA is campaigning for a worldwide phase-out of HFCs. In fact, with the review of the European Union’s F-Gas Regulation and the 25th Anniversary of the Montreal Protocol on the agenda for 2012, stamping out HFCs will be the EIA Global Environment Team’s single biggest priority in the coming year – and one that we will use all our resources, energy and ingenuity to push through to a successful outcome.