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Durban climate talks end with weak deal: local action needed!

The UN climate talks came to an end this past Sunday. Mainstream media has by and large reported  a positive outcome. “A hard fought agreement on a far-reach program” says the Canadian Press, the Durban talks, “should be regarded as very much a success,” says the UK Guardian. The cbc notice on my ipad came up as a “breakthrough” agreement in Durban. The official UNFCCC release is along the same lines, “Durban conference delivers breakthrough in international community’s response to climate change.”

Contrary to mainstream media, the Durban talks did not lead to a breakthrough deal. The Harper government is pleased with the outcome, but in today’s political context, this should raise red flags. Certainly, one could argue that the continuation of the talks (ie., preventing a full blown breakdown of talks) towards a legally binding agreement can be construed as a ‘win’ but this is far fetched faced with what is actually needed.

What came out of Durban are documents that build on the Copenhagen and Cancun talks.  It is these documents, or the Durban platform, that could become a Protocol or other legally binding instrument. The Durban platform is not sufficient in the proposed timeline and ambition to meaningfully address the climate crisis, the principle of historical responsibility is undermined and false market-based solutions will continue as a main mechanism for emission reductions.

The Durban platform fails to respond to the urgency of the climate crisis:

First of all, no deal was officially reached. There is agreement to try to reach a legal agreement by 2015 and even if this is achieved, it won’t come into effect until 2020. This timeline for having emission reduction targets in place to hold governments accountable to, is simply inadequate.

While there continues to be debate over when we will reach a tipping point – beyond which our efforts to address climate change may be dwarfed by changes to the climate that will be brought about because of what we’ve already emitted (including feedback loops) – many analysts have suggested that global emissions need to peak (reach the highest point) around 2015 if we stand a chance at keeping global temperatures below 2 degrees (see UNEP Emission Gap report).

Under the Durban platform, governments will now spend four years negotiating how far and how fast each country should cut carbon emissions. While aiming for a legally binding agreement suggests we may one day (around 2020) see binding emission reduction targets, what we have now are the voluntary pledges submitted under the Copenhagen Accord. Taken together, they will put the world on path to at least a 3 degree rise in global temperature, possibly up to a devastating 5 degrees. This is paving the path for millions of people migrating from coastal low-lying areas, hundreds of millions lacking sufficient water due to droughts and disappearing glaciers from the Andes, the Himalayas and the Rockies and more frequent and severe weather occurrences. With just a 2.7 degree rise, an estimated 21 to 52 per cent of the world’s plant and animal species will be at risk of extinction. And while the Kyoto Protocol and the binding emission targets negotiated under it continue to live in name, the reality is KP is on life support.

Kyoto Protocol on life support:

The Durban platform leaves the Kyoto Protocol as an empty shell with dangerously low ambition. As Pablo Solon, former lead negotiator for the Plurinational State of Bolivia, describes “It is false to say that a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol has been adopted in Durban. The actual decision has merely been postponed to the next COP, with no commitments for emission reductions from rich countries. This means that the Kyoto Protocol will be on life support until it is replaced by a new agreement that will be even weaker.” Meanwhile, the Harper government continues to trash the Kyoto Protocol and, as of last night, has formally announced Canada will be legally leaving the treaty (for more information, see my recent blog).

In a ‘win’ for the Harper government, the principle of historical responsibility is absent from the Durban platform. Contrary to Kent’s portrayal of climate debt as ‘guilt payments’ the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities is the foundation of the Convention’s (UNFCCC is the convention that the talks are held under) effectiveness. It speaks to the reality that Global North countries are responsible for about 75% of carbon emissions since the industrial revolution began in the mid-1700s. The Global South is bearing the heaviest burden of climate change caused by these emissions, yet have done the least to cause it. Of the 325 million people most affected by floods, droughts and crop failures induced by climate change, 98% live in the Global South. The 50 least developed countries are responsible for less than one percent of global carbon emissions (source).

The Durban platform applies to all countries but makes no distinction between Global North and Global South countries. The new mandate risks creating a weaker system that fails to recognize the historic responsibility of Global North countries due to the pollution they have created, but it creates new obligations for Global South countries, further shifting the burden on to those least responsible for this problem. This was the source of a well publicized spat between Canada and India during the negotiations. As published in the Times of India, environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan questioned Canada, “I was astonished and disturbed by the comments of my colleague from Canada who was pointing at us as to why we are against the roadmap. I am disturbed to find that a legally binding protocol to the Convention, negotiated just 14 years ago is now being junked in a cavalier manner. Countries which had signed and ratified it are walking away without even a polite goodbye. And yet, pointing at others.”

As argued in earlier blogs, Canada’s position on needing a deal that includes all countries, particularly China and India, is actually about achieving a deal that will allow business as usual for Canada via a weaker agreement. The failure of Kent to respond to the willingness of China to agree to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol underscores this.

And while fingers were consistently pointed at China and India by Canada, the U.S. and Australia amongst others at the talks, what is less well-known is that China, India, Brazil and other developing countries have committed to make larger emission reductions than those promised by so called developed countries. A study by the Stockholm Environment Institute shows that if Global North countries were to implement their higher pledges, their emission cuts would amount to 3.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2020. Reductions by Global South countries during the same period would amount to 5.2 gigatons.

An often missing part of this debate is also the reality that Canada, the U.S. and Australia still outpace many countries (including China) on a per capita emissions basis. There is also the inconvenient reality that much of the emissions in China are produced by the production of products that wind up in our homes. This raises complex but important questions about the nexus of climate change and trade.

Green Climate Fund – where will the money come from, where will it go?

While a Green Climate Fund has been established (a fund to assist Global South countries to lower emissions and adapt to climate change), there is a risk that it will be an empty shell. As of yet, there is no specific list of sources for climate finance – the risk here being that money will come in the form of punitive loans instead of grants or other innovation sources such as a financial transaction tax (also not mentioned).

The World Bank remains the interim trustee of the fund but there is an understanding that the trustee will be selected through an open transparent and competitive bidding process which may see the World Bank eventually out of this role (which is most definitely a good thing).

False market-based solutions continue

As I argued in an earlier blog, climate justice means phasing out flawed market-based solutions such as cap and trade and carbon offsets. Carbon offsetting is when developed countries buy carbon credits from developing countries to avoid cutting emissions themselves. The Durban platform keeps these false mechanisms alive and has the space for ongoing expansion of carbon markets. To read why James Hansen, renown climate scientist believes cap and trade (including offsets) is insufficient, see this article.

Real solutions for climate justice:

With the UN talks failing to provide the needed framework for action, it is up to you and I and social movements across the world to take action together for climate justice, and to compel our governments to make the right decisions.

The Council of Canadians will continue to strengthen our campaigns challenging major polluting projects. This includes ongoing support to end the Keystone XL pipeline and ramping up our campaign against the Enbridge pipeline and other pipelines that will greatly increase our emissions by facilitating ongoing unsustainable expansion in the tar sands and all of the social and environmental consequences this will have. We will continue to fight for a stop to fracking, including delivering a petition to Minister Kent in the New Year and lauching an interactive mapping of the industry – a fracker tracker.

We will continue to work with our chapters and allies to support local solutions that advance climate justice. This includes through our System Change not Climate Change project (www.systemchange.ca) which features over 25 videos from a range of speakers. The videos cover a range of topics that provide examples of real solutions that can advance climate justice and system change. This includes examples such as local agriculture, rights of nature and public transit.

There continue to be a range of positive examples of people and governments coming together for real change that point the real way forward. This includes the transition town movement, the fight for a global financial transaction tax and the movement demanding we leave the coal in the hole, the oil in the soil and the tar sands in the land (to find out more, watch this video). In this article, Naomi Klein provides a useful overview of the Oakland Climate Action Coalition’s work, “Oakland lighting the climate path” featuring a number of positive local, community-driven solutions.