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Reflections

Achim Steiner
UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UNEP

The gap between scientific reality and political ambition seems to remain firmly in place — and may be widening — as negotiations on how over 190 countries can move forward on climate change in Durban, South Africa. While there are a multitude of encouraging developments — in 2010 for example over US$210 billion was invested in renewable energies in countries from Germany to China and the United States to Mexico, Kenya and South Africa — these remain too far behind the curve in terms of the size, scale and pace of what is needed to keep the rise in global temperatures beneath 2 degrees Celsius this century.

Durban may not yield a definitive and decisive new climate agreement, but it cannot suffer stalemate if social progress, economic growth and environmental sustainability are simultaneously to be realized. Among the many achievements of the UN climate convention meeting in Cancun, Mexico, last year was the confirmation that the negotiations remain at the centre of the international community’s response, rather than drifting into the segmentation and segregation after the 2009 Copenhagen summit. This is the foundation upon which Durban needs to build — and from which to move forward on several achievable fronts.

In Durban everything remains on the table, including forwarding Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, and the conservation and sustainable management of forests, known as REDD+.

Over a dozen countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia and Panama, are at advanced stages for participation in REDD+. Deforestation currently accounts for around 17 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Paying developing countries to conserve rather than clear forests can thus play a central role in combating climate change and delivering multiple Green Economy benefits, including improving water supplies, conserving biodiversity such as the iconic orangutan, stabilising soils and creating green jobs in natural resource management.

Norway — which supports the UN REDD programme, of which UNEP is a member — is providing US$1 billion to Indonesia and a similar sum to Brazil. In Indonesia it has already triggered a moratorium on clearing new tropical forests for palm oil plantations.

There are opportunities for South Africa here too. Clearly the host of COP17 is not a vast tropically forested country. But there is real potential for planting and replanting trees and shrubs on degraded land in areas such as Kwai Zulu Natal and the Eastern Cape, providing financial incentives to landowners and stateowned areas in terms of improved management and livelihood opportunities for local people.

By some estimates there is some 1.2 million hectares of degraded land in the Eastern Cape alone. What might that be worth if just 10 per cent of that area was reforested and restored with carbon prices at US$10 a tonne of carbon dioxide? The amount of carbon sequestered or taken up by these growing trees and shrubs — estimated at 350 ton per hectare, or perhaps even higher under wetter conditions, could be worth seven million Rand a year. Over 30 years this might grow to around 200 million Rand, though it would be somewhat diminished by such transaction costs as the cost of the trees and monitoring, reporting and verification of the projects.

Durban also needs to move forward on launching the Green Climate Fund to assist developing nations to combat climate change and provide options on how to generate the agreed climate finance of US$100 billion per year by 2020. In addition, Governments must deliver tangible progress towards operationalizing in 2012 the new technology and adaptation mechanisms agreed in Cancun. And last but not least Durban needs to put on place a process for anchoring the emission-reduction pledges made in Copenhagen and Cancun and for moving steadily to close the gap between current ambitions and what is needed to keep temperature increases below two degrees. These moves would send strong signals to Rio+20 in June next year — 20 years after the Earth Summit of 1992 that set the course of contemporary sustainable development, including combating climate change.

Action to combat climate change and the transition to a Green Economy are happening literally everywhere. The challenge for Durban and for Rio+20 is to find ways of scaling-up and accelerating what is already underway — and of decoupling economic growth from resource use — while learning to recognise that addressing global warming and general environmental change is as much an opportunity as a challenge and can refocus and realize social progress for the many, not just the few.

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