From Cancun to Durban: Climate Change Negotiations COP 'Out'

By Michelle Pressend · 14 Dec 2010

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments
Picture: Oxfam International
Picture: Oxfam International

South Africa is no stranger to hosting major United Nations (UN) events. In 2001 the World Conference Against Racism was hosted in Durban and in 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) took place in Johannesburg.

In late 2011 the contentious climate change negotiations will continue at the UN 17th Conference of the Party (COP 17) in Durban where the South African government is hoping they could clinch the deal for a “fair, balanced and ambitious outcome,” on climate change.

The expectation amongst developing countries, small island states and least developed countries is that developed countries make further binding commitments to reduce their carbon emissions, commit to climate financing and boost technology transfers. 

Judging from the outcome of the recently concluded COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico; obtaining a multi-lateral agreement through which those most to blame for causing climate change take responsibility for the damage they are causing to those most affected by climate change, is unlikely to happen. Developed nations are reluctant to adopt further legally binding commitments to reduce their carbon emissions. They are also not keen to provide technology and finances to countries most affected by climate change.

In these negotiations the stakes are high. The North wants an economic return on their investments and also want to maintain the patent rights to their technologies. Not only are North-South battles playing themselves out, but maintaining economic growth through market-led priorities is at the heart of developed countries and most developing countries’ agendas, particularly the emerging economies. 

Humanity and the planet are heading for an apocalypse, yet countries’ economic interests seem to trump the survival of life on this planet. 

President Evo Morales of Bolivia is one of few world leaders to speak out about the root causes of climate change. President Morales told the media, “Evidently we have many differences and we do not have the will to change. Capitalism was not the solution to the problem and we are in reality debating the crisis of capitalism.”

The world is in a situation where developed countries historically responsible for causing climate change since the industrial revolution, are finding all sorts of avenues to renege on their responsibilities and are bent on avoiding further commitments in a second round of the Kyoto Protocol.

A group of countries led by Canada, Russia and Japan oppose the extension of the Kyoto Protocol and would prefer that certain developing countries like Brazil, South Africa, India and China, the BASIC group, take on binding commitments.

The US, on the other hand, wants to replace the Kyoto Protocol with the Copenhagen Accord. 

The situation is fraught. Developed countries and emerging economies are fighting to maintain their economic growth space; a position primarily pushed by the BASIC group. While small Island states and least developed countries are desperate for finance and technology support even at the expense of maintaining their dependency on developed countries and the conditionality’s attached to climate financing. 

Despite the creation of the dubious and illegitimate Copenhagen Accord, this proposal seems to be gaining momentum. The US is particularly vigilant about pursing the Accord as the next global climate change agreement, even though they have not signed the Kyoto Protocol and the US Congress itself has not passed America’s climate bill.

Apart from the un-procedural and undemocratic process of tabling this proposal during the COP 15 in Copenhagen after years of negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol, the US supports voluntary commitments for countries to reduce their emissions. This is simply not going to ‘cut it’ to reduce the Earth’s temperature to below 2°C.

Furthermore, the funding pledged to poorer countries is riddled with conditions like channelling the funds via the World Bank to facilitate climate financing instead of working through the UN Adaptation Fund.  The World Bank has a history of imposing conditions that actively privileges the private sector and private capital markets over public interests.

Already pledges made to provide $30 billion between 2010 and 2012 have not materialised. The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) reveals that only US$3bn has been formally allocated to adaptation. Also, the funding pledged is available in the form of loans rather than grants. The US has also cut aid to countries that have rejected the Copenhagen Accord, such as Bolivia and Ecuador.

Tragically, the South African government continues to express their support for the Accord. After all, they were part of the exclusive clique that formulated it.

In President Jacob Zuma’s closing remarks to the Heads of State and Government Dialogue at the UNFCC Climate Change Conference in Cancun he said, “The Copenhagen Accord provides political direction in this respect by encouraging developed countries to provide adequate, predictable and sustainable financial resources, technology and capacity building for adaptation action in developing countries.”

Bolivia on the other hand remains consistent in exposing the narrow interests and injustices of these negotiations. In their press briefing at the end of the Cancun meeting they denounced the adoption of the Cancun text, calling it “hollow and (a) false victory that was imposed without consensus, and its cost will be measured in human lives.”

The Bolivians and many of their supporters that can be found in progressive civil society organisations throughout the world are enormously anxious about Bolivia’s proposals being sidelined and undermined in Cancun.

In their press briefing, the Bolivians underscore that they came to Cancun with concrete proposals that were agreed to by 35,000 people from around the world in the historic World People’s Conference in Cochabamba (Bolivia) in April 2010 in the aftermath of the failed Copenhagen talks. In the year since Copenhagen, agreements that were reached by representatives of many indigenous people’s and social justice movements in Cochabamba were integrated into the negotiating text of the parties by Bolivia. However, the text of the Cancun resolution, systematically excludes their voices. Bolivia’s press brief concludes, “Bolivia cannot be convinced to abandon its principles or those of the people we represent.”

The message of thousands of left activists, peasants, farmers and the Mexican people who took the streets in Cancun to express their dismay with these climate negotiations on the 7th of December 2010, was “Market-based mitigation strategies such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) carbon offsets (and the newly touted forest offsets scheme), Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing countries (REDD), further threaten (their) human rights…land and territories, food sovereignty, bio-diversity, cultural practices and traditional way of life…"

Pablo Solón, Bolivia’s UN Ambassador who joined the march stressed,  “We need to hear what our people are saying. We need to know that what we are negotiating there is the lives of the people that here are marching. And the best way to know what is the feeling of the people here in Cancun and in 1,000 Cancun’s that are taking place all over the world is to come to this march, to come to this protest. We believe that the only way to change the course of the negotiation is through the mobilization, the organization of the people of the world.”

These views do not seem to have rubbed off on our government, which is continuing to negotiate South Africa’s right to pollute.

Exactly whose interest South Africa is supporting in these negotiations is unclear. Are they trying to please the developed countries so they do not damage their economic ties? Are they supporting corporate interests in South Africa so that they continue to build big coal-powered stations? Or, perhaps both?

Days before Cancun, President Zuma visited Cuba to improve economic relations with the island nation. There he received the highest honour for a foreign head of state, the award bearing the name of Cuban national hero, Jose Marti. 

However, when it comes to taking a stand in these negotiations, South Africa’s support is missing for ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, consisting of countries like Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and various Caribbean nations. Hypocritically, South Africa’s loyalties lie with other emerging economies and developed countries. 

In a number of NGO climate change meetings, our government officials have pronounced the forthcoming COP 17 as the “People’s COP.”

But South African civil society organisations, trade unions and their members and the public in general should not be duped into thinking that current debates are only about North-South incongruity when the South African government itself through its economic policy choices maintains the status quo, i.e., economic policies based on capitalist growth that degrade the environment.

Evidently the South African government still believes in the trickle down effect of neo-liberal capitalism to redistribute resources. These policies have affected millions of South Africans by creating massive unemployment and denying people their human right to a life with dignity. Such policies also continue to degrade the environment through pollution and the wasteful use of natural resources.

The piece-meal approach of our government to addressing climate change, through so-called green jobs, CDM projects and so on while maintaining the current economic growth path will not only hardly reduce greenhouse gases, but will also continue to disenfranchise the poor of this country.

Unless the South African government is serious about creating a socially just, equitable and sustainable economic system, they will merely be playing lip service to a “People’s COP.”  As a matter of fact, South Africa also has very little to concretely show by way of improving sustainable livelihoods and meeting “sustainable development” goals since hosting the WSSD. 

With the South African government choosing to forge alliances with the world’s developed nations against the real people’s movement on climate change that came into view in Bolivia, their claim to host a “People’s COP” rings hollow and fraudulent. It remains to be seen what emerges from the forthcoming COP 17 to be hosted at the Durban International Convention Centre. Presently, the signs look imminently discouraging for the so-called “people.”

Pressend coordinates the Trade Strategy Group (TSG) at the Economic Justice Network and Global Network Africa at the Labour Research Services in Cape Town. She is also an independent socio-political analyst on global issues related to trade, environment and climate change.

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS article is published, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!


28 Dec

Peoples cop-out, more like

Great article that exposes the double talk of the SA government. Many government delegations to various COP or other multilateral talks, whether around biodiversity , climate change or food security, include members of civil society. Our government not only excludes civil society in its delegations it excludes them in the planning, in the framing of positions and most importantly in establishing national policy.
So if civil society is excluded, how is this to be a peoples COP?

Just as our government hijacked the WSSD process and ensured that the political-corporate nexus got what it wanted and that civil society was excluded, so the pattern looks set to repeat itself.

If the government is serious about a peoples COP, lets see some proper engagement with civil society and then see some real change in how things are done. Otherwise COP 17 is going to be another waste of time for all concerned. It is no good listening to civil society and then doing what industry tells you to do. But then this has been the pattern since the Dakar talks in the 80's and it's clearly a difficult mould to break.

But lets hold government to its commitment and see how they respond. If the intent is pure, lets hope the actions are too!

Respond to this comment