Durban, South Africa—This monthly section devoted to environmental news wrapped up last year’s coverage with a preview of the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was held here from November 28th to December 9th. Now, those talks recede into the past and their results become clearer as we move forward: While averting a disastrous lapse in climate efforts and perhaps laying some important groundwork, the world’s nations put off ambitious action on climate change until a later date. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the talks, Canada has chosen to remove itself from the existing international framework for emissions reduction.

The official result of the conference was the Durban Platform, a package of agreements reached by negotiators after 5 a.m., well after the talks were set to end. The key element was an agreement to develop, by the year 2015, a legally binding treaty limiting greenhouse gas emissions that would apply to all 194 United Nations (UN) member governments. The other stop-gap result was to extend the commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol starting the day after the current period ends on December 31, 2012. The talks also produced an agreement to launch the Green Climate Fund, which will aid developing nations with money to offset the damage of climate change and develop sustainably.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the results of the talks, seeing in them “a significant agreement that will define how the international community will address climate change in the coming years.” The binding agreement that nations agreed to develop must take effect by 2020 at the latest. It was agreed that this new document must adhere to the goal, established at last year’s climate conference, of keeping global temperature increases below two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, a figure many scientists cite as a tipping point for the worst impacts of climate change. Work on this document will be undertaken by the newly christened Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.

The uncertainty surrounding the possibility of even this modest stepping stone stemmed from the question of whether the United States, India and China would eventually agree to be legally bound. All three did so, but the United States was reluctant. U.S. Climate Envoy Todd Stern told other delegates, “This is a very significant package. None of us likes everything in it. Believe me, there is plenty the United States is not thrilled about.”

The conference was interrupted when a large group of protesters representing many different interests and organizations blocked movement within the conference hall before being asked to leave and in some cases forcibly removed. They chanted “Climate Justice Now!”, “Don’t Kill Africa!”, “World Bank out of Climate Finance!”, “No Carbon Trading!” and other slogans before being removed. Even the gains made in the last hours of the conference were up in the air two days before. In urging the full assembly of delegates to work to extend the Kyoto Protocol and to achieve other ends, Ban said they must show leadership in Durban and pull the world “back from the abyss.” The next annual UNFCCC Climate Change Conference is scheduled for November 26 through December 7, 2012 in Qatar.

After returning from the climate conference, Canada’s Environment Minister Peter Kent revealed that his nation is formally withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, and Japan and Russia may follow in not signing on to the new agreement. Canada’s current leaders have stated since 2006 that they do not support the Protocol, which requires signees to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2 percent from the period 2008–2012. To meet these targets, Kent said that Canada would be “removing every vehicle of every kind from Canadian roads,” or “closing down the entire farming and agricultural sector and cutting heat to every home, office, hospital, factory and building in Canada.” The penalty for not meeting reduction goals is the transfer of funds to other nations for emissions reduction purposes.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, February 2012