By Alex Lenferna

Yesterday was an interesting day for climate discussions, however much of it was happening behind closed doors out of the reach of the negotiator tracker team, NGOs and media. Nonetheless, news of China’s potential willingness to take on legally binding agreements, and its possibility to be a game-changer within climate-change negotiations set the corridors of the International Convention Centre abuzz. Furthermore, amid discussion in the long-term cooperation action plenary about the inadequacies of financial mechanisms, the implementation of elements of the Bali Action Plan, and a proposal to include the rights of nature by Ecuador, much discussion was had about the review of the 2-degree emissions-reduction target currently agreed upon. The discussions around the review, which is set to take place in 2015, involved numerous constituencies calling for a shifting of climate change targets to 1.5 degrees as opposed to 2, in order to better ensure a safe climate future. But even though the Alliance of Small Island States has made it explicit that this review is a matter of survival for them, such a call may increasingly be wishful thinking in the face of one worrying and politically significant number, 2020.

In a previous article, I described how the African group was making a noble push to save the Kyoto Protocol, but it is important to keep things in perspective, the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol is supposed to be only a bridging step towards a broader more ambitious agreement. What is needed afterwards is a more ambitious, hopefully legally binding global treaty that will help to close the gigatonne gap. The African group, among other political blocs, is asking for this new treaty to come into effect by 2015, some parties, however, including the US, are calling for the agreement to be pushed back to 2020. This push, if successful, could have disastrous effects and make the review for a 1.5-degree target seem like a game of fantasy policy making that is completely detached from the realities of climate change.

Until the new post-Kyoto agreement comes into play the parties would be locked into the agreed emission-reduction targets from the Cancun Agreements (if they sign onto the Kyoto Protocol). These targets, if maintained until 2020, while certainly better than nothing, would lock us onto a path towards 3.5 degrees, according to a recent analysis by Climate Action Tracker. In order to deviate from that pathway towards a 2-degree (never mind 1.5-degree) target, the effort that would have to be taken from 2020, as opposed to if we implemented the new treaty on 2015, would be monumental, and, quite frankly, politically impossible. That is because the longer the delay the faster we need to reduce emissions and the harder it becomes. According to the Climate Action Tracker report if we take on an ambitious new treaty at 2015 to take us to 2 degrees, we will need to reduce our emissions by 2.1% a year. If we wait until 2020, however, the rate of reduction in order to arrive at the same target, will be 4% a year. Given that the highest predicted reduction rates are at 3.5% a year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme Emissions Gap report, that would put us in the realm of the extremely difficult to impossible and the costs of doing so would be immense.

It’s blindingly clear then that we cannot afford to push a new agreement to 2020, but countries like the US continue to push for that date. If their push is successful, perhaps it’s time we start asking ourselves how meaningful a review that asks for the revision of targets from 2 degrees to 1.5 degrees really is. The emissions-reduction curve will be far too steep to allow us to get to 2 degrees, so why even begin to discuss 1.5, unless simply to show how far off the mark we really are? Delaying until 2020 will condemn people to worldwide suffering for generations to come. Can we really allow Durban to be remembered for setting the wheels in motion that allow that to happen?

Alex Lenferna is the lead tracker of the South African government during COP 17 under, as well as chairperson of the South East African Climate Consortium Student Forum ( Follow Alex as he tracks South Africa’s progress within COP 17 on Twitter (@al_lenferna), Facebook/Alex Lenferna or


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