Clock starts ticking on climate talks

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The opening of international talks on climate change is following a familiar pattern. Today the governments of the world set out their opening negotiating positions – albeit after a tedious (and highly embarrassing) 40 minute wait for the president of the host country, South Africa's Jacob Zuma, to turn up. I suppose we should be grateful he eventually did.

From tomorrow the real work will begin. We will see discussions break away into two key streams: Those of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments which will decide the fate of Kyoto Protocol, the existing legally-binding treaty – and those of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action – the group which is tasked to set the future direction for collective action on climate change post 2020.

Side discussions will, among other things, attempt to resolve issues relating to technology transfer, reporting guidelines, maritime and aviation emissions, sector approaches, deforestation, the Clean Development Mechanism, climate aid and methodology issues, so efforts can be compared on an equitable basis.

As colleagues have already reported, there is really very little change in the entrenched positions of the main negotiating blocks. Rapidly-developing countries want legally-binding targets placed on the developed world – in effect an extension of the Kyoto Protocol which expires next year - and aid to help them deal with the affects of climate change. Developed countries, including the EU and the US, want a new agreement which places targets on all major emitters regardless of their state of development, as do the small-island states.

The EU continues, however, to look isolated. It confirmed today that it is willing to commit to a second Kyoto commitment period on the proviso that a “Durban Roadmap” is agreed outlining how the world will agree a truly global agreement in future. However, the idea already seems doomed after the US quickly distanced itself from such an approach.

It is easy to forget that significant global efforts to kerb greenhouse gas emissions are already underway. Over the last two years since Copenhagen, 86 countries have made formal emission reduction pledges, capturing over 80% of the world's man made greenhouse gas emissions. China's latest five-year plan includes ambitious targets to reduce the carbon released for each unit of production, although not an absolute emissions cap. Australia has recently agreed a carbon tax. California an emissions trading scheme of their own. Indonesia and Brazil are making significant progress in addressing deforestation. And of course many businesses and manufacturers are radically reducing the amount of greenhouse gases they emit.

If all the pledges are met in full the world would achieve almost half the reductions needed by 2020, and the rest could be made by technically available measures at no great cost, according to a recent UNEP report. It suggests that a global agreement may not be as ambitious a task as one might think.

Yet delegates report that the mood in Durban has been soured with the bickering over the sharing of responsibility. Hopes are not high. And we may soon see the smaller island states naming and shaming developing countries that are seen to be delaying the process. It could all get rather ugly.

Officials will lead negotiations this week before the high-profile Ministerial segment commences next week. The aim is to agree and consolidate as much text as possible before the Ministers arrive. The reality is that not much will be agreed between now and then.

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