In Durban, South Africa, it is more than a metaphor that any kind of agreement at the annual United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in year 17, (COP17) is realized . After the conference officially ended— it went two days into overtime. This was not the first time, overtime has become the norm in the past— it’s a pattern that may be a warning about our future. COP17 came dangerously close to no deal at all, but ended with the bare minimum as the controversial and the only international binding climate policy, the Kyoto Protocol, will continue.
The Kyoto Protocol which originated in Japan in 1997 still has flaws, loopholes, weak rules, bad definitions, and it still lacks key countries commitments, but its 2012 expiration was extended for another five years (until the end of 2017) with a mandate for a future treaty. There is a work plan to begin next year with deliberately blurred targets. The AdHoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action will negotiate new global agreement by 2015 to be ratified by all countries, that would come in force by 2020. The who, what, where, and legally binding details need to still be worked out.
The issue is 2020 may be too late, but there is now at least a mapped out path to a legally binding agreement on emissions reductions— will they be enough, in time? The Durban negotiations did not manage to extend the emissions cut pledges made in both Copenhagen in 2009 and 2010 in Cancun, but the agreement intends to have a more transparent process. The Kyoto scheme rewards governments or companies with carbon credits when they invest in clean energy projects in developing countries, which they can trade and sell for profit.
The Green Climate Fund was created, which is great, but it has yet to have any funds from governments. However its shell is a start. Also included are measures involving the preservation of tropical forests and international cooperation in clean-energy technology transfer.
Many small island states and developing nations are at risk of rising sea levels and extreme weather— this deal marked the lowest common denominator possible.
After Durban, we are still headed for over 3°C warming, so more ambitious actions from each country are needed. The proposed reductions of greenhouse gasses on the table are not sufficient to limit temperature increase to 2°C. A warming over 3°C might bring the world close to several potential global-scale tipping points such as:
- The Amazon rainforest could die back— instead we want the lungs of our planet to be protected and to thrive.
- Corals reefs could be permanently replaced by algae and sea grass— we want to see our coral reefs grow, thrive, and be restored to their beautiful colors, encouraging a more vibrant ecosystem.
- Greenland ice sheets melted, lost for many centuries to thousands of years— we want to see them sustained without further melting.
- Risk of release of methane hydrates in ocean floor sediments further adding to the warming— we want our oceans go back to their extraordinary sustainable state.
- Permafrost thawing due to fast rising arctic temperatures— we want that to slow down and ideally stop!
A depiction of the types of impacts from 1.5°C -2°C and 3-4°C has been posted on the Climate Action Tracker website. As a result, carbon emissions are now setting the world on course for possibly four degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit), twice the 2° C (3.6 °F) goal declared by UNFCCC parties last year as a safe maximum.
The Maldives takes the lead with powerful action. Countries like Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand followed the US’s embarrassing lead by stalling at COP17. China and India showed flexibility and both have in recent years installed powerful environmental policy. Click here to see how the each country is taking action in relation to specific measurable results based on science.
As the world leaders continued to talk, it’s was not just the climate’s temperature that kept rising. People around the world that were frustrated started to protest.
“Occupy the COP” was one of the many chants . “I’m for Climate Justice,” they exclaimed by human microphone, “We are here today for the people who can’t be here. We are here today for the people who will suffer the weight of climate change. We are here today for Africa. We are here today for the island nations. We are here today for the world to say ‘listen to the people, not the polluters.’ We are here today to support those that are inside who are still fighting for a real climate deal. ” Listen to the people. Abigail Borah, a New Jersey resident was able to interrupt the US concluding remarks by calling for action during the Plenary, which caused her to be “ejected” from the event, and that generated global media attention. Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace, was removed in plastic handcuffs. Canadian youth stood up and turned their backs on their country’s representative when he spoke— actions of protest continued. Check out this slide show.
Another form of protest was the many signatures sent directly to the White House to President Obama— all going viral through the same multi-media tactic Obama had used to build his constituency of supporters in the US during the election. During the climax, as well as all during COP17, powerful petitions gathered signatures of people and circulated by AVAZ, and 350.org that showed that people care about “eco”— it’s not just the economy, but also our ecology.
Our World Team Now participates in the Tcktcktck campaign, representing almost 300 of the most active environmental NGOs. Leading up to COP17 and during the negotiations, Tcktcktck gave daily reports with briefings, summaries, and updates that kept us all informed.
Vacant chairs at the end of UNFCCC “COP” is a disturbingly familiar frustration that comes from the lack of agreement. Then those leaders left resort to private, closed doors conversations— which are where action happens. Haunting memories of COP15’s ending where the people committed to change spoke up and many of the world leaders, if they came, had left. It took many of us years to process and digest COP15 ‘s extended time where we didn’t sleep much. This time, the “Occupy” tactic took hold, pronounced at the end of the United Nations Climate Change Conference for the youth— NGO’s and the people who represented the 99% who stayed and “Occupied” COP17.
Bianca Jagger, who I was with at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, explained the situation, “There is a clear disconnect between the science and the UNFCCC climate negotiations. Scientific fact is being ignored by politicians who are putting their short term agendas before the survival of humankind. I am not being alarmist. The situation is alarming”. Check out Bianca’s article in the Huffington Post about the inevitability of COP17 being “Occupied”.
From the world perspective, the behavior of the United States is at best, difficult to understand. Why did the US just send climate envoy Todd Stern to negotiate without any powerful leaders? After all, at COP15 Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was there with President Obama, who declared, “We’re back,” which gave us all hope. The US which is one of the largest polluters is causing other countries to suffer from the actions of our industrialization. Climate change has most affected some of the poorest regions of the world. The devastating consequences for human civilization and all life on Earth are already evident and getting worse, especially on the vulnerable African continent that hosted these talks. So why is there no action with the US now?
One view is President Obama needs a constituency of support from the US, and he does not have a large enough one yet. Instead we have a grid locked congress that has been unable to agree on energy policy. The majority of the people of the US do not even know about these conferences, as the majority of the “1% media” does not cover this on a large scale. Thankful for the NYTimes’ coverage). Although with the EPA’s statement that greenhouse gasses are hazardous to our health gives Obama the authority to act on behalf of the people of the US, which we all hoped he would have the courage to do in Copenhagen at COP15, he had only a relatively small constituency of support from the people of the US. We hope that this inaction is merely an act to prompt people to become aware— as he is a “public servant” and needs a constituency. Strategically, it would more likely be that the US will take action at Rio, during the Earth Summit where there will be more global attention for the twenty year reunion (Rio+20) and it will be closer to the November Presidential Election, and more would be involved, so a victory at Rio of this magnitude, on the global stage, will be fresher in people’s short attention spans, giving a win at the last minute, and capturing once again the drama of the game.
Another view is maybe the United Nations, like many other outmoded systems that are being reevaluated around the world, will need to collapse and be replaced? It’s not easy drafting a new U.N. treaty. In this case, if the US continues to ignore the rest of the world, it could be the beginning of a greater down fall. Maybe an ideal outcome would be a new system (structure) to be re-created to actually represent the people of the world, considering the world at large, as one. Or it could be just growing the present structure as planned from Durban.
Mate Nkoana-Mashabane, the president of the conference and South Africa’s foreign minister said,“We have saved planet earth for the future of our children and our great grand children to come. We have made history”.
It may be wishful thinking that with the 2012 COP18 in Qatar, which will be turning 18 years of the annual meeting. COP18 will not only be of legal age, but maybe it will also begin to produce strong legally binding global policy that the world will embrace in respect for our environment, and for our whole world.