We were told the discussions aimed "to advance, in a balanced fashion, the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol" as well as the Bali Action Plan (COP13) in 2007 and the Cancun Agreements (COP16) in 2010. Some of the main polluting nations, including the USA, China and India, took part, but Canada pulled out just after the decisions were announced.
More than 120 nations backed the European Union (EU) "roadmap" to work towards a legally binding deal to reduce carbon emissions and to extend the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012. They also agreed a package to help developing nations to tackle climate change including a Green Climate Fund to finance clean energy and other adaptation measures.
The discussions aimed to limit the average rise in global temperatures and climate change began in 1992 but progress has been very slow. The main polluting nations face significant political, financial and practical challenges in reducing carbon emissions and the developing countries face many of the potential consequences of flooding, droughts and food shortages.
Climate change expert, Lord Stern, appeared on the BBC "Today" programme as the news was breaking and reminded listeners that the effects of an increase of more than 2 degrees in average global temperatures would be irreversible. The science of global climate change is compelling but world nations still seem unable to grasp the urgent need for action.
One newspaper welcomed the step forward but another suggested the UK's over-reliance on wind farms will lead to power cuts as nuclear power stations get older and EU regulations close coal-fired power stations. It warned that EU and other countries will demand cuts in carbon emissions that will enable developing countries to invest in carbon reduction infrastructure and leave the poorer countries unable to afford the energy they need.
The UK is committed to meeting the carbon reduction and renewable energy targets agreed by the EU. The Climate Change Act 2008 set a legally binding target to reduce carbon emissions by at least 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050. It established a Committee on Climate Change (CCC) that sets carbon budgets binding on the government for five-year periods.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), other government departments and many local authorities have a range of policies, programmes and initiatives to meet the EU and UK carbon reduction targets. Most people know about climate change and some of the measures to meet the challenge, such as wind farms and zero carbon homes, but few people have an overall understanding of what is needed.
The draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for England proposes policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change, including a move to a low-carbon economy, together with other policies for the environmental, social and economic elements of sustainable development. The policies include radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficient buildings and renewable energy infrastructure.
The draft NPPF calls on local planning authorities to adopt proactive strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The policies should secure the appropriate location and layout of new development, minimise vulnerability to the impact of climate change, direct development away from areas of highest flood risk and reduce risks to development in areas of coastal erosion and change.
The RTPI believes that climate change policies should be mainstreamed into general planning policy. Its response to the draft NPPF argued that it was a "retrograde step" to treat climate change as a purely environmental issue by relegating it to the section on "planning for places". By contrast, climate change was presented as a cross cutting issue in the Climate Change Supplement to PPS 1.
The RTPI is progressing work on its Seven Commitments on climate change to promote a positive and realistic response to the challenge. It aims to (1) promote behavioural change, (2) adapt existing places, (3) work towards responsive legislation and policies, (4) improve current practice, (5) celebrate best practice, (6) compile a compendium of best practice and (7) develop climate change education and skills.
The RTPI is also a member of the Climate Change Coalition that tabled amendments to the Localism Bill on planning and climate change earlier this year. The Coalition is led by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) and Friends of the Earth (FoE). It has published various reports on climate change, including a series of model planning policies that offer a useful starting point for local plans.
Progress on tackling climate change at the international level seems less certain and further off after the Durban Conference. Progress in the UK and across the EU is more advanced but there is still a long way to go. It is difficult to assess the relative benefits of different initiatives and the overall results when the global context remains unclear.
Planners in the UK must continue to tackle climate change at the national and local levels while the world waits. Action to adapt existing places is even more important than action to secure sustainability in new development.
The RTPI must continue to press government to support local action and to encourage planners and others to work together through local plans and initiatives such as the National Infrastructure Plan to secure a sustainable future.
Richard Summers is RTPI president for 2011 and head of planning at The Landscape Partnership based in London, Woodbridge, Norwich and Bedford.