COP 17 and Rumours of 'Success': What Should One Expect?

By Saliem Fakir · 24 Sep 2011

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Picture: kool_skat_kat
Picture: kool_skat_kat

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations to be hosted in Durban later this year, with this round of talks commonly referred to as COP 17, must not be seen in isolation of the troubled waters gnawing at the knees of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs).

Things aren’t working like they used to or perhaps never really worked. The rupture between environmental values and economic growth has always been there and bodes ominously for the future of our planet.

Climate negotiations have also somewhat been bastions of hope for the resurrection of troubled MEAs. But Copenhagen showed us how delusional we were. MEAs are in deep trouble. Climate negotiations represent the last front in the fight to bring the omnipresent weight of a broader environmental agenda into the mainstream.

It is potentially achievable because it takes us to the heart of most of the world’s economies. It is ultimately about the transformation of the energy sector. Once you bring about the transformation of the energy sector, you have tapped into the life-blood of most economies and the ethos that governs them.

Moral imperative and the new normative regime that threw a wide net at the problem - since 1972 - has been displaced by economic self-interest. One can say it has always been there, but not as open as it is today. The mood between major powers and green house gas (GHG) emitters is one of cynicism.

The shift has already been made: we have moved from a science-centric to an econo-centric model on how the climate negotiations are being viewed and shaped. Given the slow treadmill of progress, there is little urgency, nor will we achieve collective action to ensure that global warming is kept within the 2°C range. 

So what can one expect from this unwieldy morass of hyperactive and sometimes-misplaced energy that everybody agrees won’t agree on anything?  What are the low-lows? Or shall we say, the low-highs?

We will certainly not see a legally binding agreement - a sort of Kyoto plus.

It will not be legally binding in the sense that there would be sanctions if a country didn’t take responsibility for its share of the burden and unlike previous climate change agreements, it would apply to all parties.

The Kyoto Protocol is under threat and even Japan, together with a couple of other major emitters, is not willing to sign up to another round of the agreement.

Canada, for instance, which long held the moral high ground is feeling no obligation to continue after almost a decade of intensifying the use of its vast resources of tar-sands.

This means that a second term for the Kyoto Protocol will be dead. The protocol set binding targets for 37 industrialised countries and the European Union to commit to bringing down their GHGs by an average of 5% against 1990 levels.

If nothing is agreed on the only ‘legally binding’ mechanism that gives some semblance of effectiveness, it makes the climate convention even weaker. That’s why there is such desperation to have continuity until a fuller agreement is possible. So what will we be left with?

Negotiators are facing three scenarios: 1) there is the so-called two-track system where the Kyoto Protocol is expanded and those outside of the Kyoto Protocol also work within a legally binding regime; 2) you have no general legally binding regime, but the Kyoto Protocol is extended, buying some time for a new legally binding agreement that covers all countries to be negotiated, or 3) countries do their own thing with pledges and commitments that are voluntary rather than binding – the so-called bottom-up approach.

Whatever the outcome in relation to the scenarios sketched above, collective action on climate change will simply not be sufficient nor speedy enough to reduce GHG emissions to levels that meet the objectives of science, i.e., keeping temperatures below 2°C levels.

Collective action is paramount and the ability to secure this within the current round of negotiations seems like a Sisyphean task making inconsequential the matter of who hosts or chairs the big jamboree in December, as South Africa sidles up to the podium hoping for a breakthrough.

So, if the highs are not possible what are the lows?

Out of the meeting in Cancun, Mexico, last year, where the negotiations were “saved,” it was agreed that a Global Green Fund, to support mitigation efforts in developing countries, should be set up. The fund is currently co-chaired by South Africa’s Trevor Manuel.

The details of the fund are being worked out, but nobody knows yet where the money will come from. COP 17 will not solve the issue of the money, but certainly the essential institutional issues should be resolved and perhaps the board appointed.

The second area is getting the Adaptation Fund, established by parties to the Kyoto Protocol, properly working, well funded and running. This fund has always been viewed as the poor-person’s kitty. It has largely relied on international Official Development Assistance (ODA) for its coffers. However, substantially more needs to be raised to support the most vulnerable countries like small-island states.

The same concern about sources of funding, which beset the Global Green Fund apply to the Adaptation Fund.

Adaptation related actions are premised on the view that even if we do reduce GHGs, it won’t be enough or in time to avoid the adverse effects of global warming.

Most countries – developed and developing – would be affected, but the poorest countries will not have sufficient resources to deal adequately with the challenges of climate change. Adverse weather effects or changes in weather patterns will have an impact on agriculture, infrastructure and settlements.

The picture looks grim. A failure in Durban will be a further nail in the coffin for MEAs. And, it will resonate beyond Durban as the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit, where global climate negotiations originated, takes place in early 2012 and will once again be hosted in Brazil.

The failure of climate change negotiations in Durban will quickly seed growing despair with MEAs and the death of Rio + 20. Would this not be ironic given that the first Rio meeting gave birth to the Climate Convention itself?

It’s all very depressing. We will also learn the bitter truth all over again that the economy always trumps the environment. Nothing will change until politics and how we live with nature itself changes.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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