Durban, South Africa—The year in environmental news has involved numerous high-profile natural disasters, the politicization of climate change in the United States and a focus on investing in green energy and sustainability within many domestic economies.The backdrop to these developments has been slow progress in talks to create an international framework for preventing climate change. These elements will be brought together at the critical 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), scheduled to be held here from November 28 to December 9.

The results of these talks is pivotal for the future of global cooperation on climate change. Climate policy advocate for the World Wildlife Fund Tasneem Essop has described the meeting in South Africa as the “tipping point” for future action on the threat of climate change. Meanwhile, U.S. Deputy Envoy Jonathan Pershing, a delegate to the meetings, recently said that a legally binding agreement is not a plausible achievement at Durban.

An impasse between leading economies and the developing world in the coming months may mean the Kyoto Protocol, set to expire in 2012, will lapse without a second commitment period agreed upon. The United States is not a party to the Protocol, signed in 1995 by many of the other leading economies in the world. “Durban will have to resolve the open question over the future of the Kyoto Protocol and what that means for a future global climate agreement. Governments retain different positions but many technical issues related to this have already been brought to conclusion and there is a strong desire from all sides to see a final political decision made,” said Christiana Figueres, UNFCCC Executive Secretary in a statement.

Ahead of the Durban talks, a series of climate change sessions were held in Panama City, Panama in early October. At their conclusion, decisions were made to move forward with agreements from last year’s COP conference in Cancun. Among those initiatives is the new Adaptation Committee and Technology Mechanism, a program that will help developing countries adapt to climate change and take advantage of emerging green technologies sooner rather than later.

Looking ahead at the agenda for COP17, South African politician Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said in a recent speech that results must include prompt action to deliver on the promises of the Green Climate Fund. Established by the Copenhagen Accord, the Fund was meant to be the financial basis of an effort to adapt to and mitigate climate change, primarily by funding developing nations. The pledged money from developed nations has been slow to arrive, and nations like Jamaica and host-nation South Africa are calling for progress.

The stumbling block for the United States in climate negotiations has long been a perceived unfair playing field, where rapidly industrializing nations like India and China are made recipients of climate funding alongside completely undeveloped African nations. U.S. delegates have made it clear that the United States will not sign on to any climate agreement that is not equally binding for all of the world’s major economies.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, December 2011