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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Climate Talks Begin in South Africa

Air Date: Week of

South Africa is the continent's economic leader and its largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The major port town, Durban, is hosting the UN Climate Talks. (Photo: Andres de Wet, Wikimedia).

The seventeenth United Nations climate summit is underway in Durban, South Africa. After disappointing setbacks at previous talks, expectations are low that agreement among nations with differing interests will be achieved. Richelle Seton-Rogers is reporting on the talks for the South African Broadcasting Corporation. She tells host Bruce Gellerman what these talks mean for the climate of South Africa and the world.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Negotiators from more than 190 nations are meeting in Durban, South Africa at COP 17, the annual Conference of Parties to the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change.

That’s the world body that is supposed to deal with global warming and its effects. UN Climate Chief Christiana Figureres struck an upbeat note at the start of this year’s meeting.

FIGUERES: It gives me great pleasure to address you on African soil and to welcome you to COP 17 and CMP 7. In the Zulu language, I greet you: (SPEAKING IN ZULU).


GELLERMAN: But despite 17 years of international negotiations - the risks from climate change are higher than ever.

FIGUERES: We meet here at a time when green house gas concentrations in the atmosphere have never been higher. When the number of livelihoods that have been dissolved by climate change impacts have never been greater, and when the need for action has never been more compelling or more achievable.

GELLERMAN: And yet expectations that the UN meeting will actually accomplish much to combat climate change are lower than they’ve ever been. Few anticipate that negotiators will be able to come up with a new climate treaty to replace or extend the Kyoto Protocol.

That’s the only legally binding international treaty governing the emissions of climate changing gases, but it lapses at the end of next year, and it includes neither China, nor the United States, even though they're the two biggest producers of greenhouse gases on the planet.

China isn’t included because as a developing nation, it’s not required to sign on; and the US never signed - and won't, until China does. Here’s Jonathan Pershing - US Special Envoy for Climate Change.

The U.S. State Department’s senior climate negotiator, Jonathan Pershing, speaking to press in Durban, South Africa. (U.S. Green Africa)

PERSHING: We are working for an agreement, which we can endorse, which we can participate in, and primarily, which works on the environmental problem, which means that all countries need to be in.

GELLERMAN: In other words: don't expect much out of Durban. Still, the negotiations will continue till December 10th. There have been surprises at UN Climate Summits in the past, and Jacob Zuma, South African President and host of the talks, remains optimistic.

PREZ, ZUMA: Change and solutions are always possible. In these talks, states, parties will need to look beyond their national interests to find a global solution for the common good and benefit of all humanity.

GELLERMAN: One European delegate called the UN conference "a traveling circus."
But the problem couldn’t be more serious. There are 10 thousand people attending the Durban summit - national climate negotiators, members of non-governmental organizations, and reporters - among them: Richelle Seton-Rogers. She's with the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

SETON-ROGERS: These talks are not going as well as hoped, that’s just what we’ve heard from the NGOs. I’ve spoken to the Minister of the Environment, Edna Molewa, and she’s told me that the talks are still on track. So we’re getting a bit of a mixed signal about what’s happening.

But from looking at some of the faces in the plenary, and from what some of the things that have been said, there does seem to be that there is a bit of uncertainty about the Green Climate Fund. As you know, this was agreed upon in Cancun, Mexico, and the countries are now trying to operationalize it here in Durban.

GELLERMAN: Now, the Green Climate Fund would be 100 billion dollars a year from rich countries across the world to less developed countries. But with the worldwide economy in the dumps, where do they hope to even think about getting 100 billion dollars a year?

SETON-ROGERS: Yes, I have put that question to our Head of Delegations and our Environmental Minister, and she was saying that countries can’t use the financial crisis as an excuse not to put money into the Green Climate Fund. Cash for those funds needs to be garnered from 2020 onwards.

And,she’s saying that the financial crisis is not a permanent crisis that’s going to be with us and so countries can’t use that to now make excuses for not working on the fund at this conference. So, at the moment, we’re just looking at the kind of framework that would surround this Green Climate Fund, and not at where the funds are actually going to come from.

GELLERMAN: Well, I was reading something that the United Nation’s chief climate scientist told the Conference of Parties earlier this week, and he said that if things continue as they are, Africa will lose half of its agriculture due to drought within a couple of decades - half!

SETON-ROGERS: Yes. That’s why, with the conference being here in South Africa, it’s really a chance to highlight the plight of Africa. And Africa, along with these small island states, are going to be the worst affected by climate change because the temperature over Africa is actually going to be rising higher than the rest of the world.

So although the conference is working to keep the global temperature rise to under two degrees Celsius, even if they keep it to that, it’s going to rise to about two to three degrees Celsius over Africa, and that’s going to have massive implications for our rainfall. In some parts, it’s actually going to cause flooding.

At Durban, on Sunday night, we already saw some floods and a number of people died in some of the rural areas in Durban, and some people saw that as a sign - a clear sign - to show delegates and negotiators here that climate change is real and it’s happening right now.

GELLERMAN: South Africa is, by far, the economic leader on the continent, but it’s also the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, and very dependant upon coal. Is there a sense there that South Africa has to clean up its act?

SETON-ROGERS: Yes, there’s a big sense in that. South Africa is the biggest emitter on the continent, and we are, at the moment, busy constructing two of the world’s largest coal-fired power stations, the one called Medupi, which is close to being completed, and another one called Kusile, which is still in the process of being constructed.

What the South African government is generally saying is that South Africa has the right to develop, so that we can give electricity to all of the people who don’t have it still. The majority of people who are actually living in a lot of poverty, they don’t have access to water and sanitation and electricity. And they’re saying the best way for South Africa to do this, because of our coal reserves, is coal-fired power stations.

GELLERMAN: The World Bank, as I understand it, gave almost three and three quarter billion dollars to the utility, in terms of a loan, to build this coal-fired power plant.

SETON-ROGERS: Yes. That was quite a controversial decision. And a lot of the NGOs were lobbying for the World Bank to not to give the money to Eskom, which is our power utility here. The World Bank still did give the funds, but there was a condition to that.

The World Bank only gave the money to Eskom if they also invested in renewable energies. And so Eskom is saying that they are going to be doing some kind of move to renewable energy, and they are going to be building a solar power plant as well as a wind power plant, which they say is enough to power a large city like Cape Town - which is the second smallest city in South Africa.

So it is a move in the right direction. But according to NGOs like Greenpeace, South Africa could be doing a lot more when it comes to renewable energies and we really don’t need to be building two new coal-fired power plants.

GELLERMAN: You know Richelle, back in 2009, there was the UN meeting on climate in Copenhagen, that was a disaster. Then we had Cancun last year, basically kicking the can down the road - no firm, legally binding treaties coming out of that. Is there a sense in Durban that time is running out?

SETON-ROGERS: In Durban, you know, the EU, the European Union, has expressed that the carbon-cutting targets are not sufficient. Science is saying that the targets that were put on the table in Copenhagen and that are in the Cancun agreements would put the world on check for about a four degrees Centigrade rise, which leads us into a situation where we’re dealing with possibly catastrophic climate change.

And some of the countries are standing in the way when it comes to making any kind of progress here in Durban. The two biggest emitters in the world, the USA and China, are at a bit of a standoff with each other, and if one doesn’t move, the other isn’t going to move. So it looks like we are on track for a four degree temperature rise if they don’t come up with better pledges.

GELLERMAN: So, Richelle, thank you so very much.

SETON-ROGERS: It’s been a pleasure, thank you.

GELLERMAN: Richelle Seton-Rogers reports on the environment for the South African broadcast corporation. She joined us from the UN Climate Conference in Durban.

[Rogers: Hugh Masakela “the Boy’s Doin It” from Live At The Market Theater (Four Quarters Entertainment 2007).]



The official site for more information on the 2011 Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa

Watch press briefings from the U.S. Delegation in Durban.


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