Can Durban be the bridge to a better future on climate change?

It’s now two years since the frantic campaigning and manic diplomacy that led to the Copenhagen climate change conference, and the blame games that followed its inadequate result. As the next UN climate talks get under way this week in Durban, South Africa, we need a new script to explain what has been achieved since 2009 and what must come next in the fight to tackle climate change.

The good news is that the UN talks on climate change are not a re-run of the zombie negotiating process in the World Trade Organisation. But the ten year anniversary of the launch of the ‘Doha development round’ should give us pause for thought about where we want the multilateral climate change regime to be ten years after Copenhagen, and whether we are on track to get there.

The agreements struck last year in Cancún did not deliver everything needed to address the perils of our warming world, but they are leading to action.

New targets for emissions cuts have been set by an unprecedented range of countries, and for the first time developing countries have pledged greater reductions than developed countries against projected emissions levels. New institutions – most notably the Green Climate Fund – are being created to help poor countries cope with the impacts of climate change.

In no small part as a result, China is leading the race to invest in renewable energy, Brazil and Indonesia are serious about tackling deforestation, Australia has finally put a price on carbon, and the EU is planning for near complete decarbonisation of its economy by 2050. Poor countries in all continents are starting to build the need for adaptation to climate change into their development plans, and facing up to the grave implications of doing so.

The problem is that none of this is going far enough nor happening fast enough. Global emissions are growing faster than ever, despite the economic crisis. The International Energy Agency recently warned we have five years left to change course before the lock-in effect of carbon-intensive infrastructure pushes out of reach the 2°C limit to global warming set by governments in Cancún. The gap between projected emissions in 2020 and the levels scientists say are needed to have a chance at staying within the 2°C target – let alone the 1.5°C needed – is actually widening.

So what can be delivered by governments in Durban to make a difference? An agreement is needed which builds on the past, plans for the future and delivers here and now in the present.

First, governments must ensure that the Kyoto Protocol continues as the bed-rock of the multilateral climate change regime. As the product of ten years of negotiation, it is an achievement of international diplomacy which cannot be dismissed. Critically, it establishes legal commitments according to common rules for emissions reductions, which provide mutual assurances for its parties that others are taking action, binding countries beyond the term of any one government, and giving the long-term certainty that business says is needed to invest in a low carbon future.

It is vital that the agreement in Durban builds on this achievement, and does not roll back the existing legal architecture for tackling climate change. It is largely in the EU’s hands to ensure it does not.

Second, governments must plan for the future by signalling that all countries will take on legally binding commitments. The EU is demanding a roadmap to such an agreement as part of the Durban package, for which the timeline is all important. Many are suggesting 2015 as the deadline, as the culmination of a review period built into the Cancún agreements, and following the publication of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report.

We should be clear that such an agreement is needed as soon as possible. But the critical question is not which year such an agreement would be signed, but whether it contains new targets for emissions cuts that go beyond the most ambitious of the current pledges, and whether those new targets enter into force before 2020. A new agreement which applies new targets only after 2020 will not be sufficient to close the emissions gap we face. They would take effect too late for 2°C.

Finally, governments in Durban must deliver on the urgent needs of poor people struggling against climate change here and now. Critically, they must take decisions which ensure the Green Climate Fund will be fully operational by 2013, and they must start to mobilise the long-term finance rich countries have promised to fill it.

The $100 billion per year developed countries committed to mobilise by 2020 need not all come from stretched government budgets. A deal is possible in Durban to generate billions from applying a fair carbon charge to international shipping and aviation, if negotiators can seize it. Governments can also find new revenues for climate and development finance by implementing financial transaction taxes at home, as seems increasingly likely in Europe.

It is tempting to say that every UN climate change conference presents a turning point for the world. But Durban must re-establish a narrative of where we have come from in the fight against climate change, deliver on present needs and make clear where we are going. If governments deliver, ten years after Copenhagen we might yet have a multilateral climate change regime which is fit for purpose.

Tim Gore is Oxfam International’s Climate Change Policy Advisor