Durban blog: Climate talks kick off in Durban

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Jane Burston of Carbon Retirement outlines the key issues at the start of the two-week climate negotiations

Jane Burston will be blogging from South Africa exclusively for BusinessGreen throughout the Durban climate summit.

The 17th UN Conference of Parties on climate change (COP17) kicked off in both senses this morning.

As thousands of delegates queued to enter the Durban conference centre for the first day of this round of official climate negotiations, the dispute set to occupy this year's summit was being set: the format of any future agreement on climate change.

You may be forgiven for thinking that content, rather than construct, was what was being focused on in climate negotiations. How much to reduce emissions by? Who takes on the burden? How much money should countries with 'historical responsibility' for climate change have to pay to help other countries develop more cleanly?

These are all questions that will be debated. But the answers to them, and the speed at which they can be agreed and acted upon, rely heavily on the format of a future agreement.

The Kyoto Protocol, the contract between countries that lays out the current rules for climate change mitigation, is thought by many to 'run out' by the end of 2012. In part this is correct: it lays out emissions reduction targets for developed countries (listed in Annex 1 of the Protocol) that must be met by 2012.

In some sense, however, the ending of the Kyoto Protocol is a choice. It contains mechanisms that allow its continuation. If countries voted to keep it going, they could do so by inserting new emissions reduction targets with new dates of completion.

One critical implication of the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol is that emissions reductions are limited to only those countries listed in Annex 1. This list doesn't include any rapidly industrialising nations such as India and China, which many in the Western world want to see curbed in terms of future greenhouse gas emissions.

The US, which has never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, would also not be included in any extension to it.

The EU controversially set out its stall on the issue last week. Polish envoy Tomasz Chruszczow, whose nation holds the European Union's rotating presidency until the end of the year, stated that any new agreement "should have all major economies and bring 100 per cent of emissions under one global umbrella. This should be negotiated no later than 2015, and it should be operational not later than 2020."

This has been seen by many as the EU abandoning its support for the Kyoto Protocol.

As Chruszczow's comment makes clear, any commitment to a completely new format means the agreement must be delayed for many years.

Dessima Williams, a representative of the Association of Small Island States, said: "The push by the world's biggest carbon polluters to delay flies in the face of the overwhelming evidence in support of immediate action."

If this issue is not resolved during COP17 there will be no way that the critical questions - those about reduction levels and how they will happen - will get answered.

Expectations for the conference are consequently at rock bottom, as once more we see process taking priority, and material progress suffering as a result.

Jane Burston is founder and director of off-setting company Carbon Retirement

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