11/23/2011 09:24 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2012

What Must Global Warming Negotiations in South Africa Accomplish?

Teeth to Welcome youNelson Mandela famously said: "I am fundamentally an optimist…Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair.  That way lays defeat and death.”  With around 200 nations set to meet in Durban South, Africa November 28 – December 9 to agree on further efforts to address global warming, those words seemed extremely fitting.  There is emerging good news of action on the ground.  At the same time there are troubling signs which confirm that we must act now.  In Durban, countries must turn standing ovations into guidelines and institutions to help all countries take serious action to reduce global warming pollution and improve their resilience to the impacts of global warming.

The Good News: Emerging Signs of Hope Occurring on the Ground
We’ve seen two critically important dynamics this year that give some hope.  First, a number of countries have made important progress in implementing laws and policies to reduce their global warming pollution.  While not at the pace and the scale that we need, important follow through has occurred that is changing the dynamics on the ground.  For example, Australia finally passed their climate law to require mandatory carbon pollution reductions for major polluters, the U.S. has adopted aggressive vehicle standards and put on hold the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and China has started to outline the detailed rules and regulations for meeting its binding energy and climate commitments in its 12th 5-year plan. [For more on each of these and additional countries, as well as further steps pending in key countries, see my quick summary.]

Second, clean energy continues to grow at an extraordinary pace.  Last year new clean energy investments skyrocketed by 30 percent to $243 billion.  No longer can people say: “renewable energy is a nice thing but it isn’t a mainstream energy source”.  In fact, renewable energy exists in a large chunk of the world.  Commercial wind power is in operation in 83 countries and solar PV capacity was added in 100 countries last year.  As a result non-fossil fuel energy accounted for about 50 percent of the world’s new electricity capacity added last year.  That is a huge shift from a fossil dominated world to one with growing amounts of new energy coming from renewable sources.

We Must Act Now: Troubling Signs Emerging

The International Energy Agency (IEA) released their new projections of where energy and pollution is likely to head if we don’t take additional actions.  And a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on climate change and extreme weather shows what we are baking into the system if we don’t act.  Four troubling signs emerged from these reports which should be a wake-up call to government’s meeting in Durban:

  • Global warming pollution is still rising.  We are seeing positive actions in key countries, but unfortunately the emissions trend is still going up.  The IEA found that worldwide energy-related carbon dioxide emission grew by over 5 percent last year to a record level.
  • We are headed for troubling places if we don’t take on greater action.  In the IEA scenario which takes account of existing policies, emissions in 2020 are projected to rise by 20 percent from today’s levels.  This would put the world on a trajectory consistent with a global temperature increase of more than 3.5°C.  That is a very, very dangerous point to reach as the new IPCC report shows that we are headed for much more devastating extreme weather (e.g., droughts, heavy rainfall, and hotter days) if we don’t act decisively.
  • The world is set to build the power plants, buildings, industries, roads, etc which could “lock” us into very dangerous global warming.  The IEA states that: “If internationally coordinated action is not taken by 2017, we project that all permissible emissions in the 450 Scenario [consistent with a 50 percent chance of holding temperature below 2°C] would come from the infrastructure then existing, so that all new infrastructure from then until 2035 would need to be zero-carbon, unless  emitting infrastructure is  retired  before the end of its economic lifetime to make headroom for new investment.”
  • There is a major cost of delaying action.  According to the IEA, “for every $1 of investment in the power sector avoided before 2020, an additional $4.3 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the higher emissions”.

These new reports should ring alarm bells for countries meeting in Durban, South Africa.

What Durban Must Accomplish: Turning Standing Ovations Into 2nd and 3rd Acts

When an actor receives a standing ovation for a performance they don’t go home and say: “I never have to act again”.  The best actors take their bow and go on stage the next night trying to perform even better.  So will negotiators translate the standing ovations from Cancun into detailed guidelines and operations (the 2nd Act)?  And will they turn those ovations into continued actions at home to meet their commitments and even deeper action to put the world on a safer path to avoid the damages of global warming (the 3rd Act)?  Or will applause turn to boos?

This past year we’ve seen promising movement to define the guidelines and institutions to support efforts to improve transparency, develop a new fund to support developing country efforts to take action to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts, and build stronger mechanisms to help deploy low-carbon technologies.  Of course there are technical differences at this stage before Durban, but the differences are much smaller than could be expected.  Countries can find the path to get agreement on these pieces in Durban.  But the “fate of the Kyoto Protocol” and decisions about “where we are headed” are shaping up to derail the whole effort if we don’t get resolution on these in Durban.  Failure to resolve these issues would make getting agreement on the institutions and guidelines to implement the Cancun Agreements extremely difficult.  [More on each of these here and here.]

Durban Must Be Able to Multitask

In Durban, countries must be able to “walk and chew gum,” while starting to sprint towards solutions that deliver low-carbon energy and reduced deforestation.  Countries need to be able to ensure that they can follow through with previous commitments and agreements by implementing actions at home, while making the institutions and guidelines from the Cancun Agreements operational in Durban.  And they must be able to start moving much more quickly to low-carbon energy and reduced deforestation.  

Durban must be a clear path on the road to addressing global warming.  We can’t afford a detour.

* Photo: "Teeth to Welcome you" a pier in Durban, courtesy of Pieterjan Grobler, under creative commons license.