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Durban COP17

Failures in the making

EnvironmentScience and Technology

2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP17), Durban, South Africa. From left to right: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, President of South Africa Jacob Zuma, President of the Conference Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and UNFCC Deputy Executive Secretary Richard Kinley. Photo by United Nations/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons.

The failure of Durban’s COP17 — a veritable “Conference of Polluters” — is certain, but the nuance and spin are also important. Binding emissions-cut commitments under the Kyoto Protocol are impossible given Washington’s push for an alternate architecture that is also built upon sand. The devils in the details over climate finance and technology include an extension of private-sector profit-making opportunities at public expense, plus bizarre new technologies that threaten planetary safety.

Politically, the overall orientation of global climate policy managers, especially from the US State Department and World Bank, will be to eventually displace the main process to the G20. This requires distraction of our attention from any potential overall UN solution to the climate crisis — which in any case is a zero-possibility in the near future because of the terribly adverse power balance — and to ignore civil society’s varied critiques of market strategies, strategies to keep fossil fuels in the ground and plans for state-subsidized, community-controlled, transformative energy, transport, production, consumption and disposal systems.

Recall from last December how disappointed the progressive movement was that in the wake of the 2009 Copenhagen fiasco, the primary face-saving at the Cancun summit amounted to restoring faith in carbon markets. The Bolivian delegation was the only sensible insider team, and they summed up the summit’s eight shortcomings:

  • Effectively kills the only binding agreement, Kyoto Protocol, in favour of a completely inadequate bottom- up voluntary approach.
  • Increases loopholes and flexibilities that allow developed countries to avoid action via an expansion of offsets and continued existence of “surplus allowances” of carbon after 2012 by countries such as Ukraine and Russia, which effectively cancel out any other reductions.
  • Finance commitments weakened: commitments to ‘provide new and additional financial resources’ to developing countries have been diluted to talking more vaguely about “mobilizing [resources] jointly,” with expectation that this will mainly be provided by carbon markets.
  • The World Bank is made trustee of the new Green Climate Fund, which has been strongly opposed by many civil society groups due to the undemocratic make-up of the Bank and its poor environmental record.
  • No discussion of intellectual property rights, repeatedly raised by many countries, as current rules obstruct transfer of key climate-related technologies to developing countries.
  • Constant assumption in favour of market mechanisms to resolve climate change even though this perspective is not shared by a number of countries, particularly in Latin America.
  • Green light given for the controversial Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program, which often ends up perversely rewarding those responsible for deforestation, while dispossessing indigenous and forest dwellers of their land.
  • Systematic exclusion of proposals that came from the historic World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change, including proposals for a Climate Justice Tribunal, full recognition of Indigenous rights and rights of Mother Nature.

Nothing will be different in Durban, but in the meantime all the worst tendencies in world capitalism have conjoined to prevent progress on the two main areas of COP17 decisions: financing and technology. The latter includes intellectual property rights barriers that remind us of how militant AIDS treatment activists considered Anti-RetroViral (ARV) medicines in 2003 at the Doha World Trade Organisation summit. Before that summit, Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights provisions allowed Big Pharma to charge $15,000 per person per year for life-saving ARVs, even though generic drugs cost a fraction of that sum. A similar push to decommodify vital climate technology is needed but only a few activists have prioritized this struggle.

Not on the table at COP17

Technological processes that threaten the earth have intensified, such as geo-engineering, shale-gas fracking, tar sands extraction, and carbon capture and storage schemes aiming to bury greenhouse gases. The Johannesburg company SASOL continues to build up the world’s most CO2-intensive factory by converting coal and gas to liquid petroleum, for which it requests carbon credits from the UN.

And in spite of the Fukushima catastrophe, the US and South Africa continue a major nuclear energy expansion. The mad idea of seeding the oceans with iron filings to generate carbon-sequestrating algae blooms continues to get attention. In October 2010, the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan called for a halt to geo-engineering, but a year later British scientists began experimenting with stratospheric aerosol injections as a way to artificially cool the planet. As Canadian technology watchdog Diana Bronson put it, “This so-called Solar Radiation Management could have devastating consequences: altering precipitation patterns, threatening food supplies and public health, destroying ozone and diminishing the effectiveness of solar power.”

The financial mechanisms under debate since Cancun are just as dangerous because austerity-minded states in the US and European Union are backtracking on their $100 billion/year promise of a Green Climate Fund to promote carbon trading. That Fund appears set to re-subsidize carbon markets by ensuring they become the source of revenues, instead of larger flows of direct aid from rich countries, which activists suggest should become a down payment on the North’s “climate debt.” The markets have been foiled by their own internal corruption and contradictions, as well as by left critiques in key sites such as California and Australia, and right-wing climate change denialism in the US Congress.

But most importantly, the EU’s emissions trading scheme is still failing to generate even $15/tonne carbon prices, whereas at least $50 would be required to start substantial shifts from fossil fuels to renewables. And world financial chaos means no one can trust the markets to self-correct.

Even with a rise of 2°C, scientists generally agree, small islands will sink, Andean and Himalayan glaciers will melt, coastal areas such as much of Bangladesh and many port cities will drown and Africa will dry out or in some places flood. With the trajectory going into Durban, the result will be a cataclysmic 4–5°C rise in temperature over this century, and if Copenhagen and Cancun promises are broken, as is reasonable to anticipate, 7°C is likely.

After 16 annual Conferences of Parties, the power balance within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change continues to degenerate. On the other hand, growing awareness of elite paralysis is rising here in Durban, even within a generally uncritical mass media.

That means the space occupied by activists will be crucial for highlighting anti-extraction campaigns including the Canadian tar sands, West Virginia mountains, Ecuadoran Amazon and Niger Delta — the hottest spots at present.

Expanding the enviro fightback

Beyond defensive campaigning, transformative politics are crucial. Robust community politics addresses sustained demands for a better environment in townships, including increased housing, electricity, water and sanitation, waste removal, healthcare and education. Connecting the dots to climate is the challenge for movement strategists. The post-apartheid South African government’s lack of progress on renewable energy, public transport and ecologically-aware production mirrors its failures in basic service delivery, which have generated amongst the world’s highest rate of social protest, and to link these via the new Durban Climate Justice network will offer a real threat, not of “Seattling” Durban but of establishing a counter power that cannot be ignored.

Patrick Bond is Distinguished Professor at the University of Johannesburg Department of Sociology, where he directs the Centre for Social Change.

This article appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of Canadian Dimension (Stepping up for the Planet).


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