At Durban Climate Talks, a Test of Leadership

The Kanuku Mountains in Guyana. Protecting the ecosystems of highly-forested countries like Guyana will be critical to mitigate the effects of climate change. (© Pete Oxford/ iLCP)

Two years ago, the world was watching as climate talks under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) began in Copenhagen. We all knew that global cooperation was essential to protect our communities, nations and planet from the dangerous impacts of climate change.

But as negotiations kick off next week in Durban, South Africa — and the world struggles to deal with debt-ridden economies, political upheavals and protests taking place across the globe — international attention is focused elsewhere.

Unfortunately the issue of climate change has not gone away; in fact, it becomes more urgent every day. Many of us have continued to soldier on, plugging away to bring forth the new solutions our new world demands. In fact, the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17) presents the last best chance for the countries of the world to demonstrate that they can work together to address one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. Despite naysayers, COP 17 can bring progress. It must.

According to the science, we cannot afford to keep kicking the can down the road. A new report by the International Energy Agency indicates that if we don’t take international action to address climate change in the next five years, keeping average global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), thus avoiding dangerous levels of climate change, will no longer be possible.

Some good news is that over the last few years we’ve seen a lot of progress on the ground, in many cases catalyzed by discussions in the international climate arena. For example, Australia recently passed legislation limiting greenhouse gas emissions from its biggest polluters. China has adopted a five-year plan that includes binding targets to control emissions and green its GDP.

Countries all over the world are also developing plans for how they will adapt to the changes that are already inevitable. Colombia’s Integrated National Adaptation Project, for example, is taking an ecosystem-based approach to adaptation and includes community-based initiatives to address water availability, farming practices and human health. In Brazil and other countries, pressure to cut down forests continues and policy challenges remain, but progress has been made and deforestation rates have started to drop.

Now it is time for these actions to inspire results in the international negotiations. The UNFCCC provides an opportunity to bring piecemeal progress together into global, comprehensive action. We can build off of the actions that have already taken place and agree to and begin implementing solutions that are truly transformative in nature.

So, as I arrive in Durban, and meet up with Conservation International’s delegation of climate experts from our offices around the world, I’ll be looking to our government leaders to be just that: leaders. And as I measure progress, I’ll be looking for three things:

  • Preservation of the Kyoto Protocol, the environmental milestone adopted in 1997 to hold developed countries accountable for legally-binding emissions reductions. If developed countries include their emissions reduction targets in a second commitment period, they will give us all faith that they are serious about their commitments.
  • A mandate to establish a legally-binding agreement for all countries by 2015 at the latest. While leadership from developed countries is important, it is now clear that every country must be part of the solution.
  • Progress on the details. Last year in Cancun, countries were able to come together and demonstrate political will by developing a framework for comprehensive climate action. They must now breathe life into the Cancun Agreements by developing the rules that will enable countries to move forward with implementation and financing. This is especially true in areas such as adaptation, REDD+ and finance.

As CI engages in these talks, we’ll be looking to inform the discussions based on our scientific expertise and on-the-ground experience. That means we’ll be focusing on REDD+ and adaptation, two areas in which nature can make a major contribution to climate solutions.

For example reducing deforestation through REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) can provide an immediate, cost-effective solution to addressing 16 percent of global emissions while bringing multiple benefits to people and biodiversity. However, to achieve the scale of impact REDD+ promises, leaders must design the enabling conditions for it — this is what we mean by details. And if Durban succeeds in developing those details, countries will be able to move forward with implementation and finance, not just for REDD+, but for other mitigation actions as well as adaptation. Because we need more than a success story here and there. We need collective action so that we can all accomplish our goal together: keeping average global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) so that we and our children can thrive.

To truly lead in Durban, our leaders will need to set politics aside. The realities of climate change require cooperation between all countries, developed, developing and least developed — our futures, our success, our failure, our survival are inextricably tied. Compromise and progressive action must overcome finger-pointing and absolutes.

Yes, economic times are tough, but investing now in strategies to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change will protect us all from paying much more later. Luckily, we have many of the tools we need — and in many cases, nature can provide us with the solutions. If we act now, we will look back on our efforts to combat climate change as one of our shining moments.

Rebecca Chacko is CI’s senior director of climate policy. Conservation International will be following the zigs and zags of the COP 17 negotiations from November 28 to December 9, contributing as we can to inform the discussions based on our scientific expertise and on-the-ground experience. Check back on our blog for the latest updates.


  1. Steven Earl Salmony says

    We can already see that we have not a long wait to come face to face with what happens where the straight superhighway we have been traveling with effortless ease becomes a narrow, curved cliffside passage; for we are the ones who are alive in a pivotal moment in human history, when economic and ecologic systems fail, a global empire (like a house of cards) collapses and self-proclaimed masters of the universe (who are primarily responsible for the colossal catastrophe looming before humanity) take off in private jets and yachts for secret hideaways in faraway places….come what may.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001
    Chapel Hill, NC

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