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If a lexicon of international climate conferences is ever written, Durban will be listed right after the words debacle, delusion, disaster and disillusionment. Even the disappointments were not surprising at the 17th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which took place in South Africa last December. Instead, they followed the usual script: two weeks of ineffectual jargon-filled bickering followed by an agreement to delay action on climate change beyond the political lifespan of most of the governments present.

This was dubbed the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, although ‘there is no enhanced action plan in it’, as Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, dryly points out. The reverse is true, with any new treaty only taking effect in 2020. The Platform charts a course to more than 4 degrees Celsius of global warming. The impacts will be unevenly distributed, affecting the world’s poorest people first, but the Durban agreement further shifts the burden of responsibility for addressing climate change from developed to developing countries.

year from developed to developing countries to help cover the costs of addressing climate change. In practice, none of the money has yet been raised and little is likely to be forthcoming. Climate justice activists fear it could become little more than a ‘Greedy Corporate Fund’, directing loans and risk-guarantees towards multinational corporations and the financial sector to extend their reach in new markets.

Opposition to this approach, which has been avidly supported by the UK government on the advice of City of London financiers, dulled its worst excesses, as well as restricting (for now) the role of the World Bank in shaping and running the fund. But there remains plenty of scope for the expansion of the fund’s ‘private sector window’ into a new source of corporate subsidies, with many key decisions rolled forward into 2012.

Parallel worlds At the heart of the climate conference problem lies a large and growing gulf between what is politically possible at such conferences and what is necessary. ‘The science of climate change

All talked out?

The Kyoto zombie The Durban conference was billed as make or break time for the Kyoto Protocol, currently the only legally-binding international treaty on greenhouse gas emissions. Kyoto sets emissions targets for industrialised countries, while at the same time creating carbon markets to allow these countries to outsource action rather than making reductions domestically. But the current targets expire in 2012, leaving just the empty shell of an agreement.

Durban reduced the Protocol to a zombie-like state. It kept Kyoto’s carbon trading mechanisms alive – a ‘remarkable and unexpectedly positive outcome’, according to lobbyists from the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA). But it did little to revive the ailing markets themselves, which crashed to their lowest ever levels at the start of the talks and look likely to remain thereabouts.

At the same time, the Durban deal drove more nails into the coffin of binding emissions targets. There remain at least five degrees of legal separation between the reduction pledges ‘taken note’ of in Durban and industrialised countries honouring their treaty obligations to lodge new reduction targets by the end of 2012. Canada, Russia and Japan confirmed their intention to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, while ‘the remaining countries (New Zealand, Australia, and EU members) pushed their favourite loopholes and exceptions’, says Janet Redman of the Washingtonbased Institute of Policy Studies, as a result of which ‘it’s hard to see what the use would be of enforcing the treaty anyway.’

The second key issue at Durban was the creation of a Green Climate Fund, which should in theory channel £65 billion per

The UN climate talks in Durban displayed a familiar pattern of brinkmanship followed by bitter disappointment and inaction. Oscar Reyes asks if should activists still be focusing attention on them and the politics of climate change, which claims to represent it, now inhabit parallel worlds,’ as an editorial in Nature put it, continuing that: ‘It takes a certain kind of optimism – or an outbreak of collective Stockholm syndrome – to see the Durban outcome as a significant breakthrough on global warming.’ Yet this is precisely how many commentators and NGOs, not to mention environment minister Chris Huhne, spun the story.

A growing chorus of progressive voices, however, is asking deeper questions about the point of engaging in UN climate conferences. Ilana Solomon of ActionAid USA notes that while NGOs have become adept at ‘discussing the nuances of “should” versus “shall” of a protocol versus a legal outcome’, this is likely to remain a losing strategy without ‘drastically changing course’ and investing more energy in movement building.

This is not to say that all engagement should stop. Groups such as the Third World Network have tenaciously engaged in

26 red pepper feb | mar 2012

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