Enter the Four Degrees Celsius World: The Failings of Climate Negotiations

By Saliem Fakir · 12 Dec 2011

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Picture credit: PIX-JOCKEY (Roberto Rizzato)/Flickr
Picture credit: PIX-JOCKEY (Roberto Rizzato)/Flickr

Fourteen days of climate change negotiations started off with much scepticism and ended with a sense of despair despite the COP 17 outcome being declared “landmark” and “historic”. COP 17 was painted, at once, as a victory for the world -- but such statements belie the real truth.

The Kyoto Protocol will continue with European Union (EU) states agreeing to a second commitment period. However, what they are committing to is nothing new, as the EU has already agreed to targets by its member states. Thus, the EU’s commitments don’t put any new ambition for emissions reductions on the table.

Japan, Russia and Canada have dropped out of the Kyoto Protocol. Negotiations for a second round of Kyoto, only involving the EU, will be concluded by COP18.

A “legally binding” regime that covers all emitters, including China and India, is to be worked out by 2015. This is contained in new negotiated text emanating from COP17. However, it includes the most ambiguous language and enough escape clauses to delay any intended implementation date of 2020 if major players decide to do so.

The only realistic measure of whether or not the negotiations have been successful can be achieved by assessing if there is sufficient global action to keep global warming below 2°C. This is what the science says we need to do in order to avoid catastrophic climate change.

If we take the science into account, climate negotiations have been a complete failure.

Those who think that an enforceable agreement, which binds major emitters to, a “legal” global climate regime by 2020 is a success, are better of running for cover. 

By then every major polluter will have to double their level of ambition because by 2020 we will have moved from a 2°C global warming target to a 4°C one. The challenge will be almost impossible and certainly more expensive. It will also be too little too late.

While the US, Japan, Russia and Canada have belligerently withdrawn from global democracy and responsibility; local democracy on the outskirts of COP 17 also came under scrutiny.

The COP itself was marred by ugly incidents when Durban City climate volunteers - kitted in green tracks suits and marching under the ANC flag - ripped up anti-Zuma posters and beat up climate justice marchers (most from the Democratic Left Front) during the Global Day of Action on December, 3 and then again, last week, when President Zuma called a meeting with civil society groups at the Durban City Hall.

These volunteers who seem to be bussed in at strategic moments should well have been named “Green COPs” – no pun intended. Their presence and role was quite sinister and seemed to be to quash any difference of opinion with our government’s agenda. It was clear that democracy was for some and not for others.

Coming back to the climate negotiations themselves - when you first enter into the fortified United Nations (UN) precinct designed to keep protestors out, you enter into a different world. The UN precinct, which is essentially UN territory, belongs to the UN and its laws. South African laws and rights were suspended for a few days.

For fourteen days you are in a bubble of negotiations – that is if you carry a pink Party badge (the only people licensed to sit in closed rooms and negotiate).

The rest - yellow, brown, blue and other badge carriers come to observe or prepare the stage for government officials and ministers. Even here in the UN they have their classes of people that separate the included from excluded.

But bubbles are what they are – once you’re in, you are caught up in the vortex of this world and you fall prey to recurrent bouts of amnesia with respect to what is going on in the real world.

And, indeed there seems to be far more going on on the ground than what governments are able to agree to collectively amongst themselves at the international level.

However, these actions are not sufficiently on a scale to turn the tide or put the brakes on what continues to be business as usual.

Consider what Brazil plans to do: early next year the Brazilian congress is expected to amend an old forest law that hitherto has prevented the landed class from raping the Amazon forest. The law opens up more land for cultivation and for big agribusiness in Brazil to gain more ground.

Global forests play an important role in carbon capture. About 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to deforestation. If the Brazilian government caves to right-wing influence, it will result in what tar sands has done to Canada. Brazil will transition from being a progressive government on environmental issues to becoming a pariah in the climate justice cause.

What this demonstrates is that the world of negotiations seems to be increasingly disconnected from real life.  

Big jamborees like this turn into structured talking fests by NGOs, business, communities, governments and whoever can pay the fees to grab an inch of square meter. While they sit and mesmerize each other, it is also an occasion for alternative voices to be heard given that close to 2000 journalists and other media gather at once to cover what goes on inside and outside of COP meetings.

Durban, by design or irreverence for self-organization, turned into a place of two-worlds: those inside the negotiations who believe something can come of the formal process and those outside who have long come to believe the formal process will deliver nothing because rich countries and even the governments of some developing countries and their corporations are part of the problem.

The untidiness of UN negotiations is rooted precisely in its method. That any country has a right of say ensures that any single country can turn itself into a spoiler if it so desires. It can block other countries from reaching global consensus on any issue on any given day.

This is how it looked for the establishment of the Green Global Fund. When the final text was submitted from the transitional committee (this committee was co-chaired by Minister Trevor Manuel) it seemed that some countries were happy to scupper any progress on the establishment of the Fund. Literally, three or four countries hung the future of the Fund in the balance.

In the end, a bare shell was agreed to for the Fund with yet to be concluded sources of funding. Where the secretariat for the Fund is going to be housed also needs to be resolved.

The UN is not a system of popular politics, as the interests of a vulnerable populace stand to be held ransom by the interests of a single country or a group of countries. Perhaps the UN’s tedious methods are not the answer for the run-away crisis of climate change.

But this is the UN and you can be assured that within its own bubble, what seems like and is called progress, may well be the death knell for the world and its most vulnerable because by 2020 when real action is promised, we will have long missed the 2°C mark – our last chance to save the planet will have come and gone.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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Howard Klaaste
12 Dec

Distance from Reality

It appears that negotiators forget about the plight of those they represent once they enter the discussion room, in the cases where their own material needs were long adequately addressed.

So was I amazed that Zuma at one stage was surprised to note people still living in squalor, and when Sexwale slept in a shack to feel what it was like to be poor again?

The outcome of COP17 is therefore not that surprising.

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