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Too late to wait on the Durban Platform, Part 1

31 January 2012

Over the summer, I have reflected on the significance of the climate talks last month in Durban, South Africa. Officially known as COP17, it was the longest UNFCCC conference. See my previous post for more background on the talks (though my views have become slightly more nuanced since I wrote it, particularly on the issue of justice).

The battlelines

There were four major sides in Durban:

The United States (US), supported by its usual cheer squad of other rich polluters including Canada, Russia, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia, campaigned strongly to delay any new action indefinitely. The US has since 1997 been opposed to any legally binding agreement unless it also imposes targets on poor countries. Having won a global regime of insufficient, voluntary pledges through bilateral negotiations in Copenhagen, the US argued in Durban there was no need to strengthen those pledges before 2020, and refused to accept binding emissions cuts until sometime after 2020, if ever, or even to start negotiations before 2015. Despite having signed the Cancun Agreements in 2010 to “take urgent action” to “hold the increase in global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” (a target which the latest research says is still “a prescription for disaster”), US negotiator Todd Stern told the media in Durban that the US sees 2°C as a mere “guidepost”, not “some kind of mandatory obligation”. Meanwhile, Canada, Russia, and Japan helped sabotage Kyoto while refusing to continue being part of it; Australia and New Zealand colluded on creative accounting rules.

The BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) continued to play the victim card like other developing countries, making impassioned pleas that the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” not be forgotten. But in Durban it began to look more like they have joined the villains, as they ended up allying with the richest against the poorest countries. China, India, and Brazil effectively agreed with the US by arguing that negotiations on binding emissions targets should not begin until after 2015. India ridiculously advocated waiting for the next IPCC report in 2014 to determine whether it is really necessary to raise ambition, a matter on which there is no question. Some have speculated that India and the US might even be working together behind the scenes.

The European Union (EU), embarrassed by its failure to get a global agreement in Copenhagen, went into Durban with its member states having agreed internally on its negotiating strategy. The EU offered to enter a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, on condition that the rest of the world signed up to a “roadmap” to finish negotiating a global legally binding agreement no later than 2015, to be implemented no later than 2020 (considerably better than the US/BASIC position of agreement after 2015, action after 2020).

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and Least Developed Countries (LDCs), who are far more numerous than the other groups but far less powerful, called for a global legally binding agreement within 12 months, to operate alongside a five-year second commitment period of Kyoto. They also wanted a process to rapidly raise the world’s ambition to meet the agreed goal of 1.5-2°C. The Maldives have been particularly constructive in trying to bridge the divide between rich and poor countries: having already committed in Cancun to go carbon neutral by 2020, they offered to make that target legally binding.

Environmental groups kept delegations accountable with regular “Fossil of the Day” awards. The worst offenders were Canada (7 Fossils) and the US (5), who at the end of the conference were awarded a “Colossal Fossil”. Canadian delegates actually applauded their Fossil awards, saying they were “uninformed” and “ideologically driven”! This year’s winners also included New Zealand (4), Russia (2), Japan, Brazil, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UK, and Poland. Surprisingly, Australia managed to avoid winning any Fossils; I suspect our carbon price fooled environmental groups into thinking our Government is serious about climate change.

Climate justice

The key issues for me watching from afar were the same as for island states: ambition, timing, and legal form. I consider these things even more important than what is the key question for many other developing countries: justice.

Looking back, in my haste to write something before the end of the conference, I probably did not examine the arguments of the “climate justice” movement as critically as I should have. I absolutely agree with them on the pressing urgency of radical action, and I very much understand where they are coming from on equity (ie. a fair treaty must recognize “common but differentiated and historical responsibilities” as promised in 1992). However, precisely because of the urgency I also think they need to be much more demanding on the emerging economies in the BASIC group.

Make no mistake, the emerging economies have legitimate grievances. The original deal was that developed countries would cut their emissions first and help poor countries to follow in their footsteps – but rich countries failed to live up to their obligations. Instead, the US refused to ratify Kyoto and is now trying to replace it with a pledge-and-review system in its favor. By some estimates, poor countries have already pledged greater cuts relative to business-as-usual than rich countries (though of course everyone needs to do more). Developing nations justifiably feel betrayed and thus reacted suspiciously to the EU’s demands.

The problem is we simply don’t have time to argue over past injustices. As Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed has pointed out, the situation is so urgent that the big developing emitters need to start making absolute emissions reductions soon. We need to rapidly reduce global emissions to zero; BASIC countries now represent 30% of global emissions, and their emissions are the fastest-growing in the world.

I am not saying these countries should be forced to accept targets as rapid as those in developed countries. The principle of “common but differentiated and historical responsibilities” still applies. The emerging economies are still not “rich”: though India and the US appeared equally obstructive in Durban, India remains 30 times poorer and 10 times less polluting per person than the US. And they rightly point out they are not responsible for the vast majority of carbon already in the atmosphere. So rich countries still have a moral imperative to act first and fastest. Nevertheless, it is an inconvenient truth that everyone must accept absolute emissions cuts as soon as possible so the world can approach zero emissions.

I think all this makes BASIC the anti-villains of Durban: sympathetic motivations, villainous actions.

In Part 2, I recount the drama and power plays of the final days of Durban.

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