27/11/2011 17:12 GMT | Updated 27/01/2012 05:12 GMT

Durban Climate Conference - Crunch Time On Climate Change

As governments gather in Durban for the annual UN climate change conference, climate change is worryingly low down the international agenda.

This is perhaps not surprising given the turmoil in the global economy. However, the stakes at Durban are very high. The meeting is the last real opportunity for governments to provide certainty on the future of the Kyoto Protocol and lay out a path to a future global climate agreement.

The meeting is overshadowed by two pressing deadlines;

The first is set by the inexorable logic of the climate science. At last year's meeting in Cancun, Mexico, governments agreed to keep the average rise in global temperatures to below the danger threshold of 2°C.

In November, the International Energy Agency made clear that without a bold change in policy direction, the world will miss this goal by a wide margin - and instead lock itself into an inefficient carbon-intensive energy infrastructure that will be costly or impossible to reverse. And last week, the UN Environment Programme confirmed that existing emission reduction pledges fall far short of what is needed. UNEP found that a strong focus on clean energy and stopping deforestation could get us back on track for a safe climate future - but only if governments take strong action now.

The second deadline is in the political process. The first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol comes to an end in just 12 months time, and a key question in Durban is whether governments can agree to a second commitment period. If not, we risk losing the world's only clear, robust legal framework to address greenhouse gas emissions. The alternative - a world of vague voluntary pledges, based on 'pick and mix' rules for accounting for emissions - will almost certainly take us to levels of warming of 4°C or more, with catastrophic consequences for people and nature.

The EU has stepped forward to offer to continue with a second Kyoto period, but only if other major economies take action. But some other developed countries such as Japan, Russia and Canada are refusing to support Kyoto.

Developing countries have made clear that agreement on continuation of the Kyoto Protocol is a bottom line for them. But unless developing countries are also willing to signal their readiness to take on legally binding commitments in the future, then it will be very difficult to find a solution to deal with runaway climate change.

WWF believes that a pathway through the maze can be found, with an agreement on Kyoto and a clear path to negotiate a comprehensive international treaty in 2015. But this will require real vision and leadership.

The other crunch issue at Durban is on the provision of finance to help developing countries cut emissions and cope with the impacts of climate change. Governments were expected to finalise plans for a UN Green Climate Fund, but these are hanging in the balance following objections from the USA and Saudi Arabia. Durban must also set out clear plans to make sure that the fund is not an empty vessel. Developed countries have pledged to deliver funding of $100 billion per year by 2020, but urgent progress is needed to identify clear and reliable sources for this money. A leading candidate is a mechanism to address international aviation and shipping.

Durban is therefore set to be a tipping point in the international response to climate change. Leaders can build on the progress achieved last year in Cancun and act to prevent runaway climate change, or they can allow short-term national interests to set us on a path towards warming of 3-4°C warming. And at the front of their minds should be that they will be making these choices whilst on African soil - a continent which is uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.