What You Need to Know

What is COP 17 and the UNFCCC?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international environmental treaty produced at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.  The UNFCCC’s purpose is to stabilise greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere at levels that prevent dangerous interferences with the climate system. These levels should be attained within a term sufficient to allow ecosystems to naturally adapt to climate change, ensuring that food production is not affected and permitting sustainable economic growth.
Since 1995, a Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC is held where representatives of all the countries that are signatories to the convention evaluate progress towards the UNFCCC’s objectives. (See these links for more info on the parties: http://unfccc.int/parties_and_observers/items/2704.php and http://unfccc.int/parties_and_observers/parties/negotiating_groups/items/2714.php )

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Latest info on ratification of UNFCCC:


What is the Kyoto protocol?

As a result of the 1997 COP, the Kyoto protocol was established. The Kyoto protocol extends the UNFCCC by establishing binding emissions targets for developed countries, and mechanisms to support developing countries in achieving low emissions growth paths. Unfortunately, not all of the COP members have become signatories to the Kyoto protocol, which has blunted its effectiveness. Specifically, the United States, which has the second highest global carbon emissions, has not signed. The largest emitter, China, is considered a developing country in terms of Kyoto and is therefore not covered by binding constraints on emissions.

Recognizing that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity, the Protocol places a heavier burden on developed nations under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.

The Kyoto Protocol has three market-based mechanisms, designed to counter emissions: emissions trading (known as “the carbon market"), the clean development mechanism (CDM) and joint implementation (JI).
More information:  http://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/items/2830.php

What is joint implementation (JI)?

Joint implementation allows developed countries to invest in emission reduction projects in any other developed country as an alternative to reducing emissions domestically. In this way countries can lower the costs of complying with their Kyoto targets by investing in greenhouse gas reductions in a country where reductions are cheaper, and then applying the credit for those reductions towards their commitment goal.

What is the clean development mechanism (CDM)?

The CDM allows developed countries to invest in emission reductions wherever it is cheapest globally. It is therefore not limited to developed countries like the joint Implementation is.

How does emissions trading work?

The government sets a limit or cap on the amount of a pollutant that can be emitted. The limit or cap is allocated or sold to firms in the form of emissions permits which represent the right to emit or discharge a specific volume of the specified pollutant.

How will the parties participate in the conference?

A national delegation represents and negotiates on behalf of each of the parties.

Traditionally, parties at UN conferences are organized into five regional groups: African States, Asian States, Eastern European States, the Latin American and Caribbean States, and the Western European and Other States (the "Other States" include Australia, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and the United States of America.

The five regional groups are, however,  not generally used to present the substantive interests of parties and several other groupings are more important for climate negotiations. Developing countries generally work through the Group of 77 (G-77) to establish common negotiating positions. It has over 130 members and includes China. Within the G-77 are subgroups, such as the African UN regional Group, the Alliance of Small Island States and the group of Least Developed Countries. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) is a coalition of some 43 low-lying and small island countries, that are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise.

The European Union and its 27 members form another group and they meet in private to agree on common negotiating positions. The country that holds the EU Presidency (a rotating position) then speaks for the European Union.

The Umbrella Group is a loose coalition of non-EU developed countries which formed following the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. Although there is no formal list, the group usually consists of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Russian Federation, Ukraine and the US.

The Environmental Integrity Group (EIG), formed in 2000, consists of Mexico, the Republic of Korea and Switzerland.

Several other groups also work together in the climate change process, including countries from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a group of countries of Central Asia, Caucasus, Albania and Moldova (CACAM), and countries that are members of organizations such as the League of Arab States and the Agence intergouvernementale de la francophonie.

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Why is the conference being held in Durban?

At COP 15 South Africa volunteered to host the 17th conference in 2011 and internally appointed Durban as the host city. Since 2005 South Africa has emerged as an important role player in the negotiations. South Africa’s negotiating team regularly punches above its weight to keep the negotiations going and to build bridges between the developing and developed world. Because of this reputation South Africa was given the chance to host the conference.

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Who organises the conference?

Various of South Africa’s ministries and agencies will work together to make the conference a success. They include the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, the Department of Environmental Affairs, the Department of Transport, the South African Weather Service, the South African Police Service and eThekwini Municipality.

The event must be organized according to United Nations standards. This includes the requirement that the host country nominates a COP 17 President who will facilitate the negotiations.  South Africa nominated Ms Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, as the COP president.

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What are some of the expected decisions to be undertaken in Durban?

The discussions will seek to advance the implementation of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol, as well as the Bali Action Plan, agreed at COP 13 in 2007, and the Cancun Agreements, reached at COP 16 last December.

What is greening and how green will this conference be?

Durban is trying to make the conference carbon neutral. To do this, they will calculate the carbon footprint of the conference and take steps to minimise it. Such steps include favouring tap water over bottled water, recycling waste, energy efficient lighting and public transport for delegates.

Delegates can also offset their footprints by buying credits in a scheme along the Umbilo River to remove alien plants and replace them with indigenous ones.

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What is climate change?

“Climate change” refers to an ongoing trend of changes in the earth’s general weather conditions as a result of a rise in the average temperature of the earth’s surface. It is sometimes referred to as global warming. This rise in the average global temperature is due, primarily, to the increased concentration in the atmosphere of gases known as greenhouse gases (GHGs). Most GHGs occur naturally, but human activities, especially those associated with industrialisation, emit extra GHGs. These gases intensify a natural phenomenon called the “greenhouse effect” by forming an insulating layer in the atmosphere that reduces the amount of the sun’s heat that radiates back into space and therefore has the effect of making the earth warmer.

On a global scale climate changed very slowly in the past – usually over tens of thousands or even millions of years – which allows time for the earth’s bio-physical systems to adapt naturally to the changing climatic conditions. Now, climate change is happening at unprecedented speed with little time for nature to adapt to its effects.

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Is there evidence of climate change?

Yes. Evidence of rapid climate change has already been observed and includes:
  • increases in the average global temperature; with the past decade being the hottest on record;
  • rises in the average global mean sea level;
  • changes in average rainfall patterns, with some regions experiencing higher rainfall (e.g. Northern Europe) and other areas experiencing drying (e.g. the Sahel and Southern Africa);
  • increased frequency of heavy rainfall and extreme weather events over many land areas; and
  • more intense and longer droughts, particularly in the tropics and subtropics.

What are the consequences of climate change?

Scientists forecast the Earth’s average temperature could increase by 3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. This would cause sea levels to rise by approximately one meter, inundating parts of coastal cities.
Other consequences include:
  • Melting glaciers will reduce potable water supply in many parts of India, Nepal, and South America.
  • The weather will become less predictable and more extreme. Floods, droughts and storms will happen more frequently.
  • Increased rainfall variability and more extreme droughts will reduce crop yields, especially in Africa. Hundreds of millions of people won’t be able to produce or acquire enough food.
  • Some scientists estimate that floods could permanently displace 200 million people by the end of this century.
  • Climate change could cost the global economy up to 20% of world GDP by the middle of this century.
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What are the green house gases?

Greenhouse gases are, in order of abundance, water vapour, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and ozone (O3).

What is South Africa doing about climate change?

South Africa has drafted a White Paper on the National Climate Change Response that describes policies, strategies and plans to limit our GHG output and to adapt to the effects of climate change.We have also defined a GHG emissions trajectory in which GHG emissions peak in 2020 to 2025, plateau to 2035 and begin declining in absolute terms from 2036 onwards.

Our Climate Change Awareness Campaign will be launched at COP17 and is a long term campaign of social mobilisation for action on climate change.

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What is climate change resilience?

Climate change resilience is the capacity to cope with imminent environmental change and is essential to survival. Resilience requires mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation refers to actions taken to reduce climate change, such as reducing emissions. Adaptation refers to actions taken to adjust to a new environment, such as cultivating drought resistant crops. 

What is carbon footprint and how can it be calculated?

A carbon footprint measures the impact of our activities on the environment. It estimates the amount of greenhouse gases that our day-to-day activities produce. These include travelling, using electricity and buying food and other products. There are various online carbon footprint calculators, for example: http://www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx.

There are some people who believe that climate change is not real and that the changes we are seeing are all part of a natural cycle, are they right?

No, the science that establishes climate change as a phenomena is conclusive. For sceptics’ arguments and the scientists responses, see http://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php.

How do we as South African compare to world in terms of carbon footprint?

The International Energy Agency determined that in 2008 we were the ninth largest per capita emitter of carbon dioxide. That’s above developed countries such as France and Spain and more than double that of a developing country such as Brasil.

What are some of the biggest sources of green house gases?

The two biggest sources are burning coal to generate electricity and using petrol and diesel for transport.

What actions can individuals take to mitigate climate change?

See our green tips section.
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