Good News From Durban

12/06/2011 06:46 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2012

It's all-too-easy for the cynics and skeptics to drown out the voices of optimism at the climate talks here in Durban. With environmentalists passionately arguing that politicians are failing the needs of our planet, and climate change disbelievers accusing scientists of fraud, it's hard for any good news to make the headlines.

The presence of the UN climate summit has transformed the largest city on Africa's East Coast into a hive a media activity, as NGOs and special interest groups battle for the attention of the 2,000-plus reporters covering this event.

While Greenpeace protestors get arrested for attempting to hang a banner on a building where business leaders debate low-carbon growth, members of the so-called Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow skydive into the conference trailing a placard discrediting climate change as a big lie.

Meanwhile, in stark contrast to the mass of media stunts going on around town, in the sober environment of the nearby Old Court House Museum, the Global Legislators Organization (GLOBE International) yesterday announced the publication of a weighty study of climate change legislation that's been passed in some 17 nations.

GLOBE's president, John Gummer, the veteran advocate for an enduring international agreement to combat global warming, gave an optimistic account of a raft of positive measures that have been introduced unilaterally by governments around the world.

He refreshingly argues that much is being done to alleviate the threat of climate change. "Many countries are doing a lot, and a few are not," which, he said, "should give considerable grounds for optimism."

Undertaken jointly with the London School of Economics' Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, the GLOBE study identifies a range of impressive national initiatives that give rise to some confidence that the climate challenge is not being ignored.

Examples include China's development of a comprehensive climate change legislation which builds in specific carbon targets in its latest five year plan; and the South African government's white paper, which incorporates a range of plans such as renewable energy targets and a carbon tax.

The study shows that all political parties in Mexico have recently agreed to come together to support new climate change legislation; Germany has outlined a radical new energy plan embraces a massive increase in renewable energy investment; and South Korea is in the process of introducing a legally-binding emissions trading scheme to cover all facilities producing more than 25,000 tons of CO2 per year by 2015.

The European Union has introduced new legislation setting performance standards for light commercial vehicles; Indonesia has enacted a presidential decree which imposes a moratorium on awarding any new forestry concessions; and Australia has just passed a Clean Energy Act which includes a long-debated emissions trading scheme, as well as bringing in a new carbon tax to become law in 2012.

Encouragingly, most of these progressive initiatives enjoy bipartisan support, with a few notable exceptions, like Australia where climate change has long been highly politicized. It is becoming apparent that many national legislators increasingly recognize the win-win benefits that climate change measures deliver in terms of energy efficiency and security, as well as the reduction of atmospheric pollution in their own countries.

Arguably, this trend reflects a shift from the hitherto political debate on climate change being largely framed around the concept of sharing a global burden, with national governments inevitably trying to minimize their share.

The GLOBE study suggests that politicians increasingly view the issue as one of national self- interest, with individual countries trying to maximize the benefits their climate change endeavors. It appears that those with robust national legislation are already attracting the most inward investment on low-carbon technologies.

But these positive initiatives are not sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change, which is why such national progress must be translated into a meaningful, comprehensive and rule-based global deal brokered by the UN.

Although I share the impatience of the likes of Greenpeace, it is surely important to at least balance the message of gloom and doom with some real beacons of hope. Having attended the historic Kyoto summit and every Conference of the Parties since then, it is deeply frustrating and disillusioning to witness such painstakingly slow progress.

Vested interests are hampering the negotiations and even threatening to scupper the prospects of an international agreement, which is more urgently needed than ever. Without pressure from the NGO community, there is a real danger that nothing will happen. And without some healthy cynicism, these inelegantly protracted negotiations could seriously compromise the prospect of a deal being struck in Durban.

There's too much rhetoric here, and too little evidence of tangible action, for sure. But I fear that an absence of any good news to come from these talks risks disenfranchising an often-confused public and takes away the opportunity for our more environmentally-progressive leaders to be rightfully acknowledged.

In spite of the treacherously slow pace of these negations, and the ever-present danger that the whole process might collapse, there are more attractive snapshots to convey from this littoral city than just its beautiful beaches.

The fact that 194 countries are sitting around the table with the shared goal of finding a collective solution to harness global warming should be applauded. Last weekend saw the continent of Africa's largest demonstration of public concern on the streets of Durban, which was truly inspiriting. The active participation of thousands of representatives from NGOs and civil society groups at this summit is impressive.

On the other hand, the future of our planet is genuinely at stake. The science is compellingly clear. Greenhouse gas emissions are at their highest ever recorded levels, and we must keep temperatures within two degrees celsius of pre-industrial times if we are to avert irreversible damage. There are nations are disappearing as sea levels rise, ice caps are melting and lakes are drying up.

I've followed these climate talks almost from their genesis, and have witnessed some deeply depressing occasions where self-interest and greed have seriously threatened to kill the entire process. And yet, in spite of all my frustrations and fears, this climate change conference here in Durban continues to fill me with a sense of hope.