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Durban fails the world

At the latest round of global climate talks, held in Durban, yet again the welfare of hundreds of millions was trampled under foot by self-interested developed countries

Curtis Doebbler , Tuesday 27 Dec 2011
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For 20 years the nations of the world have been trying to conquer climate change that otherwise is likely to make our planet uninhabitable. From 28 November to 12 December, more than 15,000 delegates from almost 200 countries gathered in Durban, South Africa for their annual meeting to try to make progress on these negotiations.

The meeting, the Conference of the Parties (or COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (or UNFCCC), marked the first time in recent years that states had come together in Africa to discuss this important issue. This was significant because as Ambassador Lumumba Diaping had lamented at the failed COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark back in 2009, we know from irrefutable science that if the world does not act soon more than 100 million Africans will likely die due to the adverse consequences of climate change during this century. Most of these preventable deaths will come from Sub-Saharan Africa.

As the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Mr Rajendra Kumar Pachauri explained to COP17 delegates, fortunately we know the action that needs to be taken to be able to protect our atmosphere. Pachauri was speaking about action to ensure that the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is kept under 350 parts per million, or in terms more user friendly for laypersons, keeping the average global temperature from rising more than 1.5 or a maximum of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The action that is required means changes in lifestyles, especially of people living in rich industrialised countries. It will require a sharing of technology, knowhow, and financial resources by the rich with the poor. And it will require the will of the international community to act. Unfortunately, unlike Pachauri’s arguments that are based on the best available science, the action needed by the international community requires political will and a sense of common destiny.

This last part is perhaps the most important. As former multi-time South African Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel said in the first days of COP17 in Durban, “It is the will that is the most crucial, and it is what is lacking the most.”

In search of political will

Coming into COP17 there was an expectation that maybe that would change now that the representatives of almost every country on earth, rich and poor, large and small were meeting in the midst of the African people, the people worst affected by the adverse effects of climate change. Many thought, how could the international community fail to act responsibly? How could the South African hosts with the leverage of their 53 African neighbours not force the hand of their guests? How could their guests not succumb to the friendly African hospitality and smiling faces of the South Africans of Durban?

During the first week there was cautious optimism. “Argentina, African governments, and the (136 nation) G77 are working for a substantive outcome that allows us to leave town with our heads high,” said Egyptian negotiator and Deputy Assistant Foreign Minister Ahmed Ihab Gamaleldin, taking a break from the almost around the clock negotiations that were taking place.

For the African hosts, Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Ms Bomo Edna Molewa said, “The goals are clear; we want a second commitment period, operationalisation of the Green Climate Fund, and real pledges by Annex I countries to cut their emissions.”

She was referring to three goals that had featured centre stage in negotiations since the failure at COP15 in Copenhagen. Where the African goals achieved at this African COP?

Perhaps the most widely publicised decision was the COP decision to agree to a new commitment period. In fact, what was agreed was that states would agree to consider a new commitment period. Even this future consideration is conditioned on starting negotiations towards a treaty that, according to the description of its provisions given by developed countries, will violate the fundamental principles of the UNFCCC. This is because the European Union and the United States are attempting to require developing countries to give up the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities that is central to the UNFCCC by calling for a new treaty, apparently to replace the UNFCCC.

Developing states were threatened that if they did not accept to negotiate a new treaty with commitments for all states, the EU and its allies would not agree to a new commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. The threat worked. The motivation behind the European action is questionable. Although always off the record, European negotiators made it clear that what they most wanted preserved in the Kyoto Protocol were the Clean Development Mechanisms and other carbon trading provisions. This is not surprising given the investment that Europe has put into carbon trading and the fact that it hosts the largest carbon market in the world. Nevertheless, to only call for carbon trading provisions to be maintained would appear obtusely selfish and insensitive to the global problem of curbing emissions.

It is troubling that the EU’s threats were made with a legally binding treaty regime in place. Every major country in world has joined the Kyoto regime, except the United States, the world’s second largest polluter behind China. The Kyoto Protocol, based on principles agreed to in the UNFCCC, sets down legal obligations for states to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

The Kyoto obligations only apply to developed countries or the almost 40 most developed countries in Annex I of the UNFCCC. These greater obligations for developed countries are based on the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities. These principles in turn are based on the realisation that for centuries the most developed countries have benefited greatly from over-exploitation of the planet’s atmosphere. To compensate the developing countries that did not have these advantages, at the UN’s Rio Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 developed states agreed to cut their emissions to a greater extent than developing countries to help promote more equal development in the world while protecting our atmosphere.

Most importantly, an agreement to a second commitment period is not a discretionary act; it is a legal obligation that is found in Article 3, paragraph 9 of the Kyoto Protocol. All European states are party to the Kyoto Protocol and are bound to implement this obligation. The EU was therefore merely offering what it was already legally bound to achieve.

In recent years several developed countries tried to renege on this legally binding obligation. Canada, for example, publicly announced during the opening days of COP17 that it would not agree to a new commitment period. After 2012, unless a new commitment period is adopted, there will be no legally binding obligations requiring states to meaningfully cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Failure to agree to a new commitment period is very likely to create a planetary disaster, because states have not shown the voluntarily will to cut emissions. In fact, voluntary pledges made by some states in Copenhagen point towards a world with an average temperature rise of four degrees Celsius, a murderous prospect for Sub-Saharan Africans.

“A second commitment period,” said Mr Pa Ousman Jarju, a Gambian negotiator and the chief negotiator of the group of 47 least developed countries, “is fundamental”. But despite its importance, a second commitment period was not agreed in Durban.

Speaking after the final decisions of the COP where adopted, Mr Pablo Solon, the former chief negotiator for Bolivia, said: “It is false to say that a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol has been adopted in Durban.” He described the Kyoto Protocol as being on “life support” after Durban. The COP decision contains no legally binding commitments for any country. Instead, states agree to consider agreeing to a new commitment period sometime in the future, without specifying the level of ambition that would be contained in any subsequent agreement.

Where is the money?

Durban’s hosts appear to have come closer to achieving their second objective, the Green Climate Fund (or GCF). The GCF was operationalised in a COP17 decision that seemed to enjoy broad consensus. South African Foreign Minister and COP17 President Ms Maite Nkoana-Mashabane described the creation of the GCF as “the key outcome of the conference”.

The GCF is expected to be the main source of financing for global mitigation and adaptation action by developing countries. Again, based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities the fund is part of a series of UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol provisions that require developed countries to provide financing to developing countries to empower them to meet the challenges poised by climate change.

After days of negotiations, Ms Bernarditas de Castro Müller, a negotiator from the Philippines delegation who played an instrumental role in arriving at the compromise that led to the establishment of the GCF said, “We did it,” but then quickly cautioned that “Now I have to explain it to my delegation,” the G77.

The outcome arrived at, however, looks very much as if states may have built a bank before having much money to put in it. Commitments made by Denmark and Germany and a handful of other countries provide only a small percentage of the 100 billion dollars the fund is supposed to start dispensing in just over eight years’ time.

Director of environmental finance and executive coordinator of the United Nations Development Programme, Mr Yannick Glemarec, estimated that the amount of money needed for mitigation and adaption by developing countries is likely to be “more than two trillion dollars a year by 2020”. Oddly, the COP decisions adopted in Durban removed almost any reference to long-term financing. The issue has apparently been deferred to a future COP.

So where will the money come from?

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg led a host of developed countries in arguing that the needed money can be raised from the private sector. Developing countries have a different view. Mr Jarju, chief negotiator of the group of 47 least developed countries, said: “Such faith in the private sector is wrong; it is contrary to what we see in practice ... markets are in crisis now.”

A policy brief by the Stockholm Environment Institute indicates private sector finance is not equally distributed. nor “new and additional” as the UNFCCC requires. It is also likely that the private sector can only provide a small proportion of the 100 billion dollars amount that was arbitrarily agreed upon in Copenhagen two years ago.

In Copenhagen, developed countries led by the EU and the US also promised to provide $30 billion for fast track financing by 2012. A report by the African Climate Policy Centre that was released during COP17 showed that with one month to go less than $2 billion of the promised $30 billion had actually materialised and that even unpaid pledges amounted to less than a quarter of the total promised.

Creative suggestions based on levies on air travel, shipping, and financial transactions appear to have disappeared from the text of COP decisions. Based on the track record of developed countries and the private sector on financing mitigation and adaptation, a fund with woefully inadequate funds may turn out be a pyrrhic victory for Africa and other developing countries.

Cutting emissions

Most disappointing to the ambitions of Africans, however, must undoubtedly be the lack of progress towards their third goal: ambitious emissions limits. The failure of COP17 to agree to any emissions limitations is perhaps the greatest blow to South Africans’ pride as hosts.

At stake was the challenge, in the words of the UNFCCC, of acting to keep the gases produced by human beings at a level that is not dangerous to our planet’s atmosphere while ensuring equitable and sustainable development. This required meeting the two-pronged challenge of ensuring that emissions would be cut to appropriate levels after reaching their peak no later than 2015, while at the same time ensuring that the burden for making these cuts did not fall on developing countries in such a manner that it would handicap their development.

The decision adopted concerning a second commitment to the Kyoto Protocol does not include any figures defining the ambition of states to cut emissions. A column in the table that lists the Annex I countries has yet to be filled in and it is not clear how or when it will be completed. As a result, the level of ambitions for emission cuts coming out of Durban can be described as very low and inadequate for achieving a level that prevents dangerous interference with the planet’s atmosphere.

Nevertheless, the European Union made a significant effort to describe their agreement to discuss a second commitment period as an agreement to cut emissions. It is, however, extremely difficult to see the logic of this reasoning. While it is true that European Union states are obliged to cut their emissions by 20 per cent, as required by EU legislation, other major emitters among developed states have either agreed to no or much lower emission cuts. As a result, and although they have no legally binding obligations to cut emissions, developing countries have been placed in the position of being expected to provide most of the global emission cuts.

To justify their position, developed countries often pointed to the fact that China, a non-Annex I country, is the largest aggregate polluter and that other developing countries are also becoming major emitters. Such finger pointing, however, appears to have a discriminatory undertone.

Calculated per capita, China’s emissions are insignificant. In fact, the emissions of the developing world are a fraction of those of the developed world when they are calculated per capita. The gap between material resources is even greater. While the per capita GDP of the United States is about $46,860 per year and the average GDP per capita in Europe is $30,388, China’s per capita GDP is only $7,544 per year and for India only $3,408 per year, according to the World Bank. Why should Chinese citizens be entitled to less emissions or less resources than an European or an American?

Decision-making at COP17

Perhaps most disturbing thing about the decisions taken by COP17 was the way the decision making process worked in Durban. While several states praised the South African government for being more inclusive than the Danish and Mexicans in the past two COPs, few meetings took place in public where NGOs and the press could keep watchful eyes on negotiators.

This was troubling to both NGOs and states that often complained of not knowing what was really going on. Small Island states were being showered with gifts, including pro bono advisers that would tell them how to act and sometimes even what to say and when. African states were being threatened with no money if they did not bow to the demands of the EU. And strong-minded ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas) states were threatened with isolation if they blocked agreements that were not as ambitious as they and most of civil society had called for.

Despite the careful effort to negotiate behind closed doors, evidence of inappropriate interference sometimes made it into the public domain.

During the AWG-LCA (Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention) plenary in the late evening of 10 December, the Venezuelan special representative of the president on climate change, Ms Claudia Salerno Caldera, exposed threats that had been directed against her, stating: “In the corridor I have received two threats. One, that if Venezuela does not adopt the text they will not give us the second commitment period … [S]econd, and the most pathetic and the most lowest threat, that if we don’t give them their comfort zone with no rules, flexible, in which they are going to do what they want when they want to head us to four degrees, we are not going to have the Green Climate Fund.”

While several states spoke boldly during the AWG-LCA debate, calling the agreement “a very watered down text,” “unbalanced,” “biased against developing countries,” and “not adequately capturing the essential elements” discussed in Durban, it appeared that the threats from developed countries had their intended effect when it came time to adopt the text. No state objected to the text. The only concessions that they had managed to extract seemed to be that an earlier more elaborated text would also be forwarded to COP18 and that the outcome documents were so inconclusive that perhaps negotiations would start over in Doha next year.

One young activist observing the proceedings wondered why the Venezuelan allegation of what was in effect corruption of the UNFCCC process did not lead to an immediate investigation and at least the temporary suspension of the process. Instead, the process continued as if nothing had been said.

Similarly, when questioned about the lack of transparency in COP17 processes, such as the mainly closed-door meetings, both Costa Rican Executive Director Cristiana Figueres and the South African hosts defended the secrecy. South African Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Ms Edna Molewa could only say, “It has to be that way.” It is unlikely that the UNFCCC Secretariat will take any action as it supported the closed-door processes.

The best control on state action, the more than 10,000 civil society participants who had converged on the COP17, were often kept in the dark about negotiations and prevented from exercising their watchdog function.

On the last Tuesday night, NGOs were excluded en masse from the International Conference Centre. UN Security guards came through the massive centre telling NGO representatives that they had to leave while meetings were still going on. UN Security claimed that had to sweep the area for bombs using dogs —in the UN security chief’s words —that “were vicious and would bite people”. The UN’s rationale, requiring belief that the dogs were trained to only bite NGO representatives or that UN security did not care whether state representatives were bitten, was not convincing. Instead the exercise looked like just another effort to keep civil society at a distance from the talks.

Some NGO observers who did stay until the very end were surprised at the failure of the developed countries, including the hosts, to fight for a stronger agreement. Instead of fighting for Africa’s interests, as the Danish prime minister had for European interests when his country hosted COP15 by taking over the presidency of the COP himself in the closing days, South African President Jacob Zuma declined to apply his respected negotiating skills to the climate talks and instead travelled abroad during the closing days. ALBA, African and G77 countries that were approach by civil society representatives urging them to stand for a strong agreement during the closing COP plenary seemed more concerned with not upsetting the developed countries than with fighting for the interests of Africa.

While the Western media either through ignorance or intentional malice might deliver to the EU, the US and their allies a rhetorical victory, little was done in Durban to combat climate change and that is something of which we should all be ashamed. Leaving the Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre early Sunday morning after the talks, and walking through the crowds that were starting to gather with their sleepy but always smiling faces, it was difficult for any of the delegates to look these hard working and friendly Africans in the eye, and it surely wasn’t just because of sleep deprivation.

The writer is a prominent international human rights lawyer.

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