Averting Armageddon?

Averting Armageddon?

COP17 took place from November 28 to December 9 last year. What did it achieve? Will it save tomorrow today, as it boldly claimed to do – or was it a cop out? JACO DE KLERK investigates…

And so the countdown to December 21, 2012, has begun… and some believe this may be the beginning of the end!

The 2012 phenomenon has created anticipation among various religious groups, raising questions and striking fear into the hearts of some. Different interpretations about the Mayan prediction of the end of the world abound – ranging from full-on apocalypse to a global shift in consciousness. However, one thing is certain – the world is in danger. Climate change, if left unchecked, may bring about the end of the world as we know it.

In 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, better known as the Earth Summit, 154 countries signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which came into effect on
March 21, 1994. This treaty provides an overall framework for intergovernmental efforts to address climate change and stabilise greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere – and, with 40 additional parties joining the treaty, the UNFCCC has near universal membership.

Since 1995, these parties have met annually at the Conferences of the Parties (COP) to evaluate their progress in combating climate change. Last year’s event – COP17, which took place at the Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre in Durban – brought government representatives, international organisations and civil society leaders to the largest city in KwaZulu-Natal. There, attendees worked to advance the mandates of the original conference and further develop various COP action plans agreed to in previous years.

Focus was also placed on the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997, since COP is also the meeting place for the parties to the Protocol. The Kyoto code of behaviour supplements the UNFCCC, and originally set binding targets for 37 industrialised countries and the European community for the reduction of GHG emissions. The biggest difference between the Protocol and the Conferences is that while COP encourages industrialised countries to stabilise GHG emissions, the Kyoto Protocol commits them to doing so.

COP17 ended on December 11 last year, with a list of decisions aimed at lowering emissions in an effort to help poorer countries cope with the impact of changing weather systems. The decision to hold all major emitters of carbon dioxide (CO2) gases accountable for their emissions – regardless of their development status – can be seen as the chief outcome of the Durban talks. Pre COP17, China and India – ranking first and third on the GHG emissions list respectively – had been excused from any constraints because they are developing countries. This new agreement must be completed by 2015 and will be effective from 2020. One negative outcome is that the United States – second on the list – chose to discard its commitment to the Kyoto Protocol. Despite this, last year’s conference brought about a variety of launches and initiatives that did – or can do – a world of good.

One such endeavour was Anglo American Platinum’s demonstration of a platinum-based fuel cell generator to the COP17 attendees. This zero emission technology, generating 150 kW, demonstrated clean energy production during the conference by supplying power to the local electricity grid through the use of hydrogen. Platinum-based fuel cells have many advantages, offering high efficiency, versatility and scalability – which enables the provision of clean, reliable and cost-effective power. However, according to Anglo American chief executive Cynthia Carroll, this isn’t the only benefit fuel cells are capable of delivering. The only catch is that the industry will need to be accelerated through commercialisation.

“Prioritising the development of a local fuel cell industry will create many thousands of jobs,” says Carroll. “It will also provide clean, reliable power for South Africa, and will support the government’s drive for more effective in-country beneficiation. Momentum is building in the global fuel cell market to accelerate the application of this proven and versatile technology. To make South Africa a truly global player, the focus now must be to promote a strong, viable local manufacturing industry that supports the everyday use of fuel cell technology.”

She adds that South Africa is in a unique position to reap significant benefits from a local fuel cell market. “There is strong political support for local beneficiation and clean energy programmes. Fuel cell demonstration projects are under way around the country, and the country has the necessary manufacturing and engineering expertise. The window of opportunity to make this happen is now.”

Averting Armageddon? According to Neville Nicolau, chief executive officer of Anglo American Platinum, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is one of the challenges of this century. ”We have to harness the potential of proven renewable technology now in order to accelerate our move into a low carbon economy, and we see platinum-based fuel cells playing a significant role,” he says. Nicolau bases his view on a Carbon Trust report, commissioned by Anglo American, about the potential of fuel cells for South Africa. This report also states that the development of a local fuel cell industry will create hundreds of thousands of employment opportunities over the next 30 years, provided that appropriate levels of investment in innovation, manufacturing, installation and maintenance are made, supporting Carroll’s remarks. Stationary fuel cells – similar to those used at the conference – could also alleviate some of the country’s existing energy challenges or provide rural communities with energy without major grid expansions.

Another possible low carbon solution identified for the future: sustainable transport strategies. Members of the Rustenburg Rapid Transport project team that attended COP17 organised an additional side event at the conference entitled: “Bridging the Gap between transport and climate policy: Time to tackle the transport sector.” This event was created to promote sustainable transport with the aim of reducing CO2 emissions, bringing together the Transport Ministries of South Africa, Columbia, Indonesia and Germany. One major topic these ministers discussed was the use of Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) to fund strategies for low carbon transport. NAMAs are essentially the various policies and actions that countries undertake as part of their global commitment to reducing GHG emissions, focusing on financial assistance from developed countries to developing countries – such as South Africa.

Jeremy Cronin, Deputy Minister of Transport for South Africa, says the current South African Public Transport Infrastructure and Systems Grant – which provides funds to 12 cities – is proving invaluable in getting catalytic public transport projects off the ground. However, he says it needs to be supplemented with other sources of funding for the level of infrastructure development that is needed to provide critical momentum in implementing urban public transport networks throughout South Africa.

“We need to seek additional funding sources to accelerate the transformational process for the benefit of the majority of South Africans who do not own cars, being captives of public transport, and many of whom will be the very people most affected by climate change in future. Transport NAMAs should definitely be investigated as one of those funding sources.”

The International Association of Public Transport (UITP) – a global network of public transport authorities and operators, policy decision-makers, scientific institutes and the public transport supply and service industry – also took part in this side event. The organisation provides a platform for worldwide support, business development and the sharing of know-how between its 3 400 members from 92 countries. During “Bridging the Gap”, UITP stressed that the key to stabilising rising global temperatures, and thus avoiding the worst aspects of climate change, lies with the shift in transport from cars to a more sustainable mode such as public transport.

According to a combined study by UITP and the International Energy Agency, public transport consumes – on average – 3,4 times less energy per passenger-to-kilometre ratio than cars, with an even greater decrease during peak hours. The study also concluded that each citizen saves 500 to 600 litres of petrol a year in cities where the majority uses public transport, walks and cycles. This puts things into perspective, bearing in mind that transport accounts for approximately 23 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions globally, and that the demand for transportation is unlikely to decrease in the foreseeable future.

In 2009, UITP launched its PTx2 strategy aimed at doubling the public transport market share by 2025. The strategy intended to raise awareness of the need to put public transport high on the agenda as a possible solution to climate change. This solution was, as previously mentioned, emphasised at last year’s conference. The organisation also pointed out that doubling the market share not only presents an opportunity to address GHG emissions, but also presents the ability to revitalise and develop economies, generating jobs and enhancing people’s quality of life.

An additional positive outcome of COP17 was the recognition by the parties of the need to raise their collective level of ambition in reducing CO2 emissions in order to keep the average global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius. Various governments, including 38 industrialised countries, also agreed to a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol – from January 1, 2013, to the end of either 2017 or 2020, with May 1, 2012, as the deadline for turning their economy-wide targets into measurable emission limitation or reduction objectives.

“I salute the countries that made this agreement,” says Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC. “They have laid aside some cherished objectives of their own to meet a common purpose – a long-term solution to climate change. I sincerely thank the South African Presidency who steered through a long and intense conference to a historic agreement that has met all major issues.”

Averting Armageddon?According to Figueres, this is highly significant because the Protocol’s rules, mechanisms and markets all remain in action – being effective tools to leverage global climate actions and serving as a model for future agreements. However, things were originally looking grim for the treaty when several nations – Japan, Russia and Canada – following the USA’s lead, stated at the beginning of the talks that they wouldn’t renew their Kyoto vows. The countries mentioned that new promises wouldn’t make a difference if far bigger CO2 polluters had no legal constraints. Luckily the Protocol got a fighting chance when the European Union (EU) – with Switzerland and Norway taking the lead – supported a new round of pledges, laying the path for others to follow suit.

Inspiring this was the EU’s declaration that it would solely, if necessary, re-commit to the Kyoto Protocol in exchange for the 2015 agreement that all countries be held responsible for their emissions, regardless of their stage of development.

In addition to laying more foundations on reducing greenhouse gases globally, the parties also agreed to full implementation of the package to support developing countries – a matter that was brought up during COP16 in Cancun, Mexico. According to Figueres, this will enable the developing world – which needs urgent support in adapting to climate change – to keep to the 2015 deadline of owning up to emissions. This package also includes the Green Climate Fund, which was committed to by various nations at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit. The Fund aimed to disburse at least US$ 100 (R771,78) billion  per year by 2020 to help poorer nations fight and cope with climate change. Even though COP17 resolved some design flaws of the Fund (it remains empty), a decision couldn’t be made on what percentages of the funding should come from the public and private sectors.

The parties also acknowledged that current undertakings to cut emissions – from both developed and developing countries – aren’t high enough to keep the global average temperature rise below two degrees Celsius, which heightened the uproar among Greenpeace members. The organisation declared that governments listened to the carbon-intensive polluting corporations instead of those who want dependence on fossil fuel to end.

“The grim news is that the blockers, lead by the United States, have succeeded in inserting a vital get-out clause that could easily prevent the next big climate deal being legally binding,” says Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International. “If that loophole is exploited, it could be a disaster. The deal is due to be implemented ‘from 2020’, leaving almost no room for increasing the depth of carbon cuts in this decade. Right now, the global climate regime amounts to nothing more than a voluntary deal that’s put off for a decade. This could take us over the two degree threshold where we pass from danger to potential catastrophe. Our atmosphere has been loaded with a carbon debt and the bill, carrying a Durban postmark, has been posted to the world’s poorest countries – especially here in Africa. The chance of averting catastrophic climate change is slipping through our hands with every passing year that nations fail to agree on a rescue plan for the planet.”

Only time will tell if this year is truly our last, with the world ending in a disastrous blaze – or if some global epiphany will place mankind on a higher plane of mental consciousness. But the certainty remains – if climate change is tackled half heartedly or action postponed for too long, the entire planet will pay the price.

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