A lesson in How not to save the world

On 20 December 2010, in Lance Greyling, by Andrew Bennett

A Lesson in How Not To Save The World

Lance Greyling

The annual Climate Change Conference of the Parties  (COP) meeting is a bewildering experience for even the most seasoned negotiator. Essentially it is a bringing together of countries and widely different interest groups all determined to ensure that their agendas are driven forward. Clearly it is impossible to satisfy all these interests, but the most disappointing feature of these negotiations is that the overall goal of trying to prevent the world from tipping over into a destabilizing 2 degree rise in temperature is being lost in the mayhem. As one negotiator remarked to me, this is no longer about the environment, this is about economic interests and how countries best protect and advance those interests.

Unfortunately this is lowest common denominator negotiations, where consensus is only reached on what the country with the lowest ambition is prepared to accept. There are also various power plays at work, which extend beyond these negotiations. It is not only the climate that is changing but the very axis of global political power as economic growth is seeping away from Europe and the US and moving towards the emerging economies, particularly in Asia. All of this has a bearing on the negotiations as industrialized countries, which according to the agreed upon principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, are supposed to take on the initial major emission cuts are now paranoid about losing any form of competitiveness in this cut-throat world.

All of these negotiations also occur in a climate of mistrust between the rich and poor countries of the world. Developing countries rightfully feel that many of the commitments that developed countries have made in the past have often not been honoured. In the famous Rio Earth Summit in 2002, it was agreed that all industrialized countries would commit 0.7 percent of their GDP to Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) in order to address extreme poverty in the world. Unfortunately only five countries have lived up to this commitment, and many developing countries justifiably question whether they can now depend on industrialized countries to provide the necessary funding for climate change mitigation and adaptation work. It has been estimated that over U$100 billion in additional assistance is required each year in order to fund the transition to low carbon development in the developing world, and although these funds were supposedly agreed to in Copenhagen, the means of delivering it was not.

In order to address this gap between principles and means of implementation, the United Nations Secretary General appointed an Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing (AGF) to compile different options as to how these funds could be generated. There are certainly some innovative solutions like carbon taxes, which will both generate funds and create a disincentive to burn fossil fuels, or a tax on financial transactions, or levies on international transportation such as airline travel and shipping. These are all good ideas but they depend on the political will being there to implement them in the different countries. At the moment the contact group on finance in the international negotiations is bogged down in the simple task of how the AGF report is even just noted let alone implemented.

In the area of mitigation, which is the heart of the debate in terms of ensuring that the world’s temperature does not increase above 2 degrees, the level of ambition is extremely low. The pledges that were made in Copenhagen by the industrialized countries have been calculated by the usually conservative International Energy Agency to lead to a 3 to 4 degree warmer world. In some parts of the world like Southern Africa you can add another 1 degrees warming to that figure, effectively signing the death warrant for the livelihoods of those living there along with all small island states and other vulnerable parts of the world. Quite simply this is a world that none of us would want to live in, but we have not found the international consensus to prevent this from occurring.

To make matters worse these pledges are not even legally binding, and the debate in Cancun is how they are simply taken note of in the final negotiating text. Some countries are even going back on these pledges with Japan refusing to sign up to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. Effectively they are trying to kill off the only legally binding protocol on emissions reductions, which actually originated in their country. This goes against the agreement that was struck in Bali three years ago and was supposed to culminate in a global legally binding deal in Copenhagen last year. Unfortunately the failure of Copenhagen has not led to a renewed sense of urgency about this challenge, but has in fact led to some countries using the opportunity to take these negotiations back even further.

This is my fourth COP that I have attended, the first one being way back in 2000 where the initial breakdown occurred and the subsequent eight years of a Bush Presidency ensured that no substantial progress was made on this issue. The Bali COP in 2007 was the most promising one where the countries of the world at least agreed to a roadmap that enshrined the principles and process to deliver a legally binding agreement. It is our failure to honour that process that has now led to this state of global paralysis. As Al Gore stated, political will is a renewable resource and we urgently need to generate it in those countries that are preventing us from moving on this issue. It is only when the domestic politics in all of the countries are aligned that we can expect to see the kind of outcome in Durban next year that will reflect our shared vision for a more stable world.

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