The recent Durban meeting of the UNFCCC climate change talks closed with some positive news coverage this week. But what’s the reality behind the headlines?

Grounds for cautious optimism

On the positive side, governments have stated that a binding agreement on climate change is required, and that emissions cuts need to be reached which are in line with the science.

And some important groups of countries, including the EU, poorer countries ('least developed countries' or LDCs) and small island states, came together in a constructive way to work towards agreement.

That’s at least a start. But there are a lot of obstacles still to be overcome. Big emitters such as China, the USA and Canada continued to drag their heels. Had they not done so, more progress could have been made.

And there’s no agreement yet on what level of emissions cuts they will agree on; and no-one has actually signed up to anything yet.

Governments have given themselves another four years to work out the detail of an agreement. So there’s a long way to go. Meanwhile, emissions continue to rise, and communities continue to live with the effects of climate change.

Outside of the UN process, Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol was met with frustration worldwide and demonstrates that countries can still go their own way. The need for a binding agreement remains.

Agreement to negotiate a treaty is not the same thing as a treaty

We’ve been here before, notably in Copenhagen in 2009. A deal was on the table, but there was failure to agree on the crunch questions. On these same crunch questions governments remain too far apart – for example:

  • How ambitious will we be on emissions cuts?
  • How much finance is on the table to help poor countries adapt to a changing climate?

The fear remains that this negotiation process could run its course over several more years only to find that agreement remains out of reach, that governments still lack the political will to act.

A huge ‘emissions gap’ remains between the CO2 cuts proposed by the large emitters and the level that the scientists estimate is required to keep global temperature rises at an acceptable level – what is currently on the table would still lead to unacceptably high temperature rises of 3-5 degrees.

While governments barter, emissions continue to rise, and global temperature rises also continue. The consequences for all countries – but especially the poorest – are already with us, and the voices from poorer countries are strongly critical of the slow rate of progress.

For example, the World Council of Churches stated in their strongly worded official statement to the negotiations, issued on behalf of a coalition of world religious bodies:

“Climate change is still cruelly hitting African countries, Pacific Island States and South American and Asian peoples, yet still you do not listen to our voices. Where is justice?”

This autumn, Progressio’s partners and development workers in El Salvador experienced severe rainfall and flooding which has seriously damaged the economy and livelihoods of the poorest. A failure to take decisive action on climate change will hurt the poorest as extreme events such as this become more common and more severe.

Memo to world governments: you’ve promised a deal – now back it

It is now crucial that the limited momentum gained in Durban is not lost but that the world’s politicians now give the negotiation process strong and consistent support. It is essential that our politicians hear the voice of concerned citizens everywhere, especially from the developing world, that inaction is inexcusable.

From the UK side, we have been pleased to see good engagement from DECC (Department of Energy and Climage Change) ministers Chris Huhne MP and Greg Barker MP in this year’s negotiations. The UK has led the way in the past – and needs to stay committed.

How do Progressio’s campaigns fit in?

The UK’s own commitment to reducing carbon emissions is set out in official Carbon Budgets. Progressio supporters earlier this year campaigned for the adoption of an ambitious target for the fourth Carbon Budget. And an ambitious Carbon Budget was adopted, of which the UK should be proud.

Progressio campaigners also wrote to members of Parliament when the Chancellor appeared to question commitment to these targets in the autumn. The outcome of the Durban conference reinforces how important it is for UK campaigners to maintain pressure on the government. The agreements reached in Durban will only work if all governments, including our own, stay focused on reducing emissions.

Are the climate negotiations waterproofed?

A key Progressio priority for the climate negotiations is to encourage arrangements for the UNFCCC climate talks to take account of water issues. One of the main ways that poor communities experience climate change is by changes in water resources, as rainfall patterns change, glaciers melt, and extreme weather increases.

So Progressio and its partners feel strongly that taking proper account of water-related issues will be key to achieving outcomes which work well for poor communities.

We’ve been seeing some good movement here, with water issues now part of the official workplan looking at adaptation to climate change. So on this particular issue we are feeling encouraged that the message is getting through – but we need to keep watching, and keep the pressure on.

Of course, mitigating climate change also has an impact on water (through biofuel production, or hydro power), something that Progressio is watching closely.

What next?

Governments have agreed to negotiate, so there will now be a lot of negotiation! Negotiations will continue during the years ahead, in the expectation of a deal in 2015, and they will be tough and tortuous. We’ll need to keep our politicians’ minds on the job, so campaigners will need to dig in for the long haul.

Next year’s Rio+20 summit in June on sustainable development will be will be one important opportunity to move things forward. It’s a different kind of summit: it aims to set out a vision of sustainable and fair development – to agree on the kind of world that we want to see, where we take care of the environment for the good of all, and where we are working to tackle poverty and underdevelopment.

So it’s a great opportunity to build commitment on climate change support and direction, as part of a wider agreement on environment and development.

For Progressio, we’re still keeping our eye on water-related issues. It’s clearly important that water is taken seriously in Rio, which is why we are calling to “Waterproof” Rio. Find out more, and add your voice here.

By Tim Aldred, Progressio's Head of Policy and Communications. Additional material by Daniel Hale, Campaigns Officer.

Photo: Members of the Mother Earth Movement in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, campaign for action on the environment. (Photo © Maggie Von Vogt/ Progressio)