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Polluters Dominate the Agenda at COP 17 in Durban

Will the forces of "business at usual" prevail at COP17, or will the voices of people from around the world be able to effect real change?At the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17), 20,000 negotiators and stakeholders from nearly 200 countries are meeting in Durban, South Africa. Although many countries are taking steps to curb GHG emissions as part of the global fight against climate change, there is little hope of a binding international agreement this year. After COP 15 in Copenhagen, there was considerable well warranted pessimism, and after COP16 in Cancun, heightened expectations appear to have vanished.

Review of Last Year’s Conference of the Parties

Although there were serious difficulties and disagreements at COP16, there were some minor achievements. The COP16 Conference adopted the Cancun Agreements which offered a glimmer of hope that we could move towards a low-emissions future and support enhanced action on climate change in the developing world.

The text on emission cuts called for “urgent action” to cap temperature rises at no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, although it did not establish a clear mechanism for achieving the pledges made by the parties.

The parties also agreed to curb emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries. Perhaps the most significant achievement of COP16 concerns pledges of financial assistance for the developing world, especially those in Africa. The parties agreed to set up the Green Climate Fund, which was intended to raise and disburse $100bn a year by 2020 to protect developing countries against climate impacts and assist them with low-carbon development. Sadly, the fate of the fund is in jeopardy as the U.S. is now rejecting the current concept of the Green Climate Fund.

Killing the Kyoto Protocol

Most disturbingly, COP 17 will likely see the end of the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol contains key rules to quantify and monitor efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and important market-based mechanisms that enable cost-effective mitigation. The Protocol is set to expire in 2012 and the U.S., Canada, Russia and Japan have indicated that they will not support an extension of the international agreement.

The U.S. team participating in UN climate change talks in Durban is resisting a proposed legally binding GHG emissions reduction treaty that would come into effect in 2020 and succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

Issues Impeding Progress

Despite the overarching dangers associated with climate change, the head of the U.N. climate panel, Rajendra Pachauri, warned the latest round of talks risk being bogged down by “short-term and narrow political considerations.”

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) said the “rather large elephant in the room” at the COP-17 was the ever-widening gap between the action needed to stem global warming and what is on the table this year.

UNEP says developed countries are “stuck on weaker, conditional pledges” and that the greenhouse gas emissions targets they have set themselves are “riddled with loopholes”. UNEP said in a newsletter distributed at the Durban talks that developed countries needed to “raise their game dramatically”.

To make matters worse, there is a profound lack of trust between the parties in Durban. As with previous meetings, the COP negotiations are breaking down over disagreements between rich and poor nations on GHG reductions. Developed countries want developing countries to restrict GHG emissions, but developing nations want the opportunity to grow and adapt with increased funding from developed countries.

African countries are already suffering from the effects of rising temperatures, even though their combined share of carbon emissions is negligible. However, the concerns of developing nations are being ignored by rich nations. Speaking at COP 17, South African President Jacob Zuma said, “For most people in the developing world and Africa, climate change is a matter of life and death.” He indicated that the failure to address climate change will decrease agricultural output in many African countries by about 50 percent by the year 2050, leading to food insecurity and a loss of livelihoods.

Rich Countries are Bullying the Developing World

According to a new report published by the World Development Movement, rich nations are employing divide-and-rule tactics and threatening to withhold much needed funds if developed nations dare to disagree. EU commissioner Connie Hedegaard apparently suggested island states could be coerced because they were desperate for money and other leading figures in western governments have been accused of using bullying tactics with developing countries.

Wealthy nations hold secret meetings, and then push poorer countries to accept their decisions. Countries like the U.S. are using unfair, undemocratic and even deceitful means to skew the climate change negotiations in their favor.

Devious tactics are also being employed to marginalize developing nations, which lack the resources of rich countries. One diplomat told the report’s authors:

“At one point in Copenhagen there were 26 meetings taking place simultaneously. How can a developing country delegation of two people possibly hope to cope? Developed countries sit down and delay, and just repeat inanities, and then they go out and tell the media that the developing countries are blocking the negotiations, and all the world believes it, even developing countries!”

A diplomat from the tiny Polynesian island of Tuvalu said: “Can I suggest that it looks like we are being offered 30 pieces of silver to betray our people and our future?”

Debunking the Economic Arguments

The most common reason cited for resistance to a binding climate change treaty is the economic costs. However, the success of many environmentally sustainable businesses refutes the cost argument and makes the case for the transition to a low carbon economy. In addition to being profitable, sustainable businesses create jobs and minimize their impact on the environment.

Although some try to make the case that environmental sustainability is bad for business, the truth is a strong business case can be made for sustainability. There are sustainable solutions to the economic crisis we are facing that can both provide jobs and hasten the adoption of a low-carbon economy.

In an interview with the Financial Times, former US President, Bill Clinton, made the point this way:

“For $ 1 billion invested in a new coal plant, you get fewer than 900 jobs; for solar you got 1,900 jobs, for wind turbines 3,300 jobs and (for) retrofitting buildings 7,000 – 8,000 jobs… Here are the jobs, here is the investment. Are you really against it?’”

The success of low carbon enterprises offers compelling evidence for the belief that market forces can help auger the transition towards a low carbon economy.

It may be hard to push climate change to the top of the global agenda with the economic difficulties in Europe and elsewhere, but as stated by China’s top climate official, economic problems should not get in the way of a new pact to fight global warming.

Focus on Science

Global climate talks need to focus on the growing threat from climate change. “It is absolutely essential that the negotiators get a continuous and repeated exposure to the science of climate change,” Pachauri told Reuters.

A report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated that an increase in extreme weather can be expected this century. Extreme weather events in 2011 included recent floods in Thailand and multi-billion dollar disasters in the U.S. and the previous year saw similar climate catastrophes.

The UN World Meteorological Organization’s latest report showed that the warming effect of greenhouse gases on climate, known as radiative forcing, has increased 29% from 1990 to 2010. 2011 has been a year of extreme weather, the WMO reported. Drought in East Africa has left tens of thousands dead; lethal floods submerged large areas of Asia; the US suffered 14 separate weather catastrophes with damage topping $1bn each, including severe drought in Texas and the southwest, heavy floods in the northeast and the Mississippi Valley, and the most active tornado season ever known.

“The science is solid and proves unequivocally that the world is warming,” said RDJ Lengoasa, the WMO’s deputy director, and human activity is a significant contributor.

It is Possible to Reduce GHGs to Manageable Levels

Despite serious obstacles, it is not impossible to bridge the gap between where GHG emissions are headed and where they need to be. According to a new U.N. report titled Bridging the Emissions Gap, if sectors such as energy, farming, forestry and transport all cut emissions by feasible amounts, global warming can be kept below 2ºC.

The report also says that countries will need to pledge bigger cuts to meet the 2ºC target. The United Nations Environment Programme says that nothing revolutionary is needed, if every sector makes its appropriate cuts, the cost would be small.

More Waiting

Some wealthy nations have indicated that a legally-binding climate pact can wait until the end of this decade. Joseph Gilbert, Grenada’s environment minister, called such proposals, “both environmentally reckless and politically irresponsible.”

As GHG levels continue to rise, it becomes ever more obvious that we cannot wait for 2020 to get an international agreement to stabilize GHG levels. With island states facing extinction in the coming decades, action on climate change cannot be delayed any further.

Conclusion

The fact that COP 17 is taking place in Durban is an opportunity to emphasize African issues. At best, COP 17 will produce modest steps toward a deal to lower emissions from factories, power stations and transport.

While the private sector can play a significant role in helping to resolve the problem of climate change, we cannot adequately address the problem without the involvement of governments.

Given the absence of government leadership, the meeting in Durban is likely to produce little more than a lot of hot air.
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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: TckTckTck.org

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