South African International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane officially handed over the UN climate change presidency as this year's UN climate summit (COP 18) got under way in Doha, Qatar on Monday.
Thousands of government representatives, international organizations and civil society members gathered in the Qatari capital as the United Nations Climate Change Conference kicked off with a call to build on and implement previously agreed decisions to curb global carbon emissions by the year 2020.
The Durban Platform
During last year's COP 17 gathering in Durban, South Africa, 194 countries agreed on a package of decisions - known as the Durban Platform - which include the launch of a protocol or legal instrument that would apply to all members, a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, and the launch of the Green Climate Fund, which was created to help developing nations protect themselves from climate impacts and build their own sustainable futures.
The Doha gathering, which brings together the 195 parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the parent treaty of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, will seek to meet the objectives set forth in another climate change meeting, held in Bali, and plan the work of the Durban Platform.
The incoming president of the Conference of the Parties (COP 18), Qatar's Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, told the gathering that their work over the next 10 days would "draw on past success ... We have to reach an agreement on the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, build on progress in Bali, and make progress on our agreement in Durban."
Under the Kyoto Protocol, 37 states - consisting of highly industrialized countries and countries undergoing the process of transition to a market economy - have legally binding emission limitation and reduction commitments. Government delegates at the conference will try to extend the Kyoto Protocol, which expires at the end of 2012.
'The door is closing fast'
Addressing the conference, UNFCCC secretary Christiana Figueres highlighted recent UN-led reports pointing to the urgency of keeping global average temperatures from rising beyond an internationally agreed level of two degrees Celsius, beyond which climate change could have serious impacts.
Analysis published by the World Bank last week shows the world remains at risk of seeing a four degree Celsius rise in temperatures by the end of the century.
In its recently-released 2011 Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, the UN World Meteorological Organization said greenhouse gas concentration reached a record high last year, while the Emissions Gap Report by the UN Environment Programme warns that the gap between what is needed in terms of emission reductions to stay below two degrees Celsius and what has so far been promised by countries is widening, not decreasing.
Figueres said countries could still reverse these trends if they decided to act, since the knowledge, technology and policy options needed to curb emissions were already available to them. However, she stressed that time was running out.
"Expert analysis consistently says that we do have the possibility to keep on track and that to act now is safer and much less costly than to delay," she said.
"In the last three years, policy and action towards a sustainable, clean energy future has been growing faster than ever. But the door is closing fast because the pace and scale of action is simply not yet enough. So Doha must deliver its part in the longer-term solution."
Durban decisions 'must be honoured'
South Africa's ambassador at large for climate change, Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, said ministers had to instruct their negotiators to honour the Durban package of decisions to ensure that it was not reopened and unravelled.
"It's on the basis of the Durban outcome that we need to move forward in COP 18. Doha must be all about the implementation of the already agreed decisions."
Mxakato-Diseko said that although there were some outstanding issues, ministers would need to work together to decide how to deal with these outstanding issues.
"We have, for example, created a number of key institutions to enhance provision of the means of implementation. We need to effectively operationalize these institutions and ensure that they can deliver on their mandates."
South African International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the outgoing COP 17 president, addresses the COP 18 UN Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar, 26 November 2012 (Photo: Jacoline Prinsloo, Department of International Relations and Cooperation)