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What the Durban outcome means for business

Dr Paul Toyne for Guardian Sustainable Business
12th December 2011
So, after two weeks of fraught negotiations, an agreement called the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action has been reached. But what does this mean for you if you work for a UK business, or perhaps a European or global business that operates in the UK?
Even if you don't work for such a company, the agreement struck in Durban is important and will, over time, influence all businesses regardless of which industry or location they are in.

The Durban agreement means governments will now spend four years negotiating how far and how fast each country should cut carbon emissions. It also means that there will be a second phase, extended until 2017, of the Kyoto Protocol which mainly involves European Union nations taking mitigation actions, maintaining legal rules and mechanisms which will undoubtedly help shape the successor to Kyoto in 2020. Of course, for us in Europe setting targets is nothing new: in the UK the Government has set a target of cutting carbon emissions by at least a 80 per cent by 2050, and the EU has set reduction targets over time too, for example 20 per cent by 2020 based on 1990 levels.

However, what is significant about Durban is that all UN countries will need to do this by 2020, including the new big emitters such as China and India. This sets the whole world on a course for a low carbon economy for the first time. The implications of this are profound for business, as companies that can sell services and goods that help realise this roadmap process will prosper. This should also stimulate investment in low carbon technology and encourage the carbon offset markets, as negotiators at Durban acquiesced to new market mechanisms to put a price on carbon. They also agreed to include carbon capture storage (CCS) projects within the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto protocol. Even if CCS is a long way from mass deployment, at least Durban sent out the right signals to the industry. No doubt academic institutions and consultants will also have a role to play in advising governments on developing national carbon mitigation plans.

If the scientists and environmental NGOs are right, and the 2020 start date means we risk missing out on restricting a global temperature increase to 2º , then innovative, fast-acting solutions to compensate for the slow start are going to be in high demand. The question is whether we can afford to wait until 2020, when a more rapid, intense and no doubt costlier effort will be required. The answer, although not satisfactory in all senses, is that many countries and indeed businesses are already on this journey. The push to improve energy efficiency is apparent in global business spanning the globe, from companies such as Whirlpool in America to Toshiba in Japan.

A more concentrated effort to switch from coal and oil to low carbon fuels for power generation and transport is required, but it can be done – the 'electric' direction of the automotive industry is a case in point. However, the big elephant in the room is the issue of changing consumer behaviour. Here, manufacturers and retailers have an important part to play in selectively editing out products that lead to unwelcome social and environmental outcomes and clearly the promotion of energy efficiency and energy conservation to consumers needs to continue.

Back to the Durban talks and another positive outcome was the agreement of the format and governing principles of the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which had been cited as essential for the summit to be considered a success. The GCF, a $100 billion annual payout to developing countries, will be an autonomous organisation under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Now, efforts must be redirected into securing finance for the fund, as without it many developing countries will struggle to take the actions required to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. During COP17, Germany and Denmark led the way in committing €55 million for fast-track finance to be available to the fund from 2012 – funding that may have been crucial in securing backing from less developed and island nations for the EU's roadmap, which formed the basis for the Platform for Enhanced Actions.

Looking ahead to 2012, although the London Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee might steal the headlines, don't overlook the Rio+20 summit at the end of June. The talks will mark 20 years since world leaders met in Rio de Janeiro to discuss the health of the planet and agreed on UN conventions like the UNFCCC. They will explore further linkages between mitigating and adapting to climate change and developing resilient, low carbon economies. Don't be surprised if it results in governments agreeing to set out individual roadmaps for green economic growth. "Not more roadmaps," I hear you cry, but without a roadmap how can we engage others to join the plan and take action?

Each nation may have a different roadmap but what Durban has shown is that there is an overarching will and agreement on taking collective action. To ensure this is successful and does not take us down the road of a catastrophic 4º temperature increase, we must feed climate change mitigation and adaptation actions into the broader challenge of creating sustainable economies that do not eat away at the natural capital (and natural resources) of our planet.

Finally, just think what signals the Durban conference would have sent to business if delegates had failed to reach an agreement. For business leaders already embracing the challenges that a climate-changed, resource-constrained world necessitates, the international accord struck in Durban should provide much-needed reassurance that they are on the right track.

Dr Paul Toyne is group head of sustainability at global engineering, design and environmental consultancy WSP. He is a former WWF conservationist and campaigner and was appointed as a sustainable development commissioner for London by the mayor in 2010.

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This story has been published under licence from Guardian Sustainable Business, of which GreenWise is an editorial partner.






What the Durban outcome means for business
The Durban agreement means all UN countries will need to set carbon reduction targets by 2020
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