In November and December 2011, I attended the United Nations climate change conference (COP17) in Durban, South Africa. I will be periodically syndicating my blog posts from other websites here on the Solution. I’m doing this for two reasons. First, I want an archive of my work here, on my site, under my name. Second, as I will discuss in a forthcoming post, climate change is an animal rights issue. I hope that Solution readers will be interested, therefore, in my commentary on the climate talks.
Over a month has passed since the last Friday of COP17 stretched on into a Saturday, then into a Sunday. Personally, I have grappled with the issues raised by the Conference constantly, turning the outcome – the ‘Durban Platform for Enhanced Action’ – over and over in my mind, alternately looking for holes and seeking silver-linings. At first I yelled at fellow youth delegates that the outcome was worse than Copenhagen; then, I identified several areas of progress; and, then, I swung slowly back towards my first view (but not all the way).
This is no detailed summary of the Durban Platform, nor a comprehensive policy response on behalf of the Youth Delegation. There are detailed summaries elsewhere, written by many more informed, intelligent and eloquent people than I. Mark Lynas provides one outstanding summary; Opinio Juris, a legal analysis or two; the European Journal of International Law, another; and Alex Lenferna of Adopt a Negotiator, a detailed analysis posted on the day (!). This is simply my personal reflection on the outcome of COP17 and subsequent coverage. It is my attempt at articulating where I think we might have gone wrong – and how me might set it right.
The last days of the Conference were full of emotional highs and lows. As the Conference stretched overtime, our experience within the ICC became ever more surreal. On the Friday night, the DEC hall was disassembled around us. As we left, evicted shortly after 2am on the Saturday morning, we found the very entranceway to COP being taken apart. When we got back to our hostel and checked in online, we found that, first, several NGOs had pushed back and we were in fact not evicted from the Conference Centre, as meetings were ongoing, and, second, that a new set of texts had come out. And those new texts looked good.
Saturday brought less optimism. Another new round of texts emerged. The youth still present occupied a corner of the ICC and planned and ran a very successful press conference. But, generally, little seemed to be happening during the day on Saturday. Negotiations seemed, at least from our limited perspective, to be stalled – and already a day overtime. Sebastian Duyck of Adopt a Negotiator summed the mood up well in a piece entitled “Endless Conference Towards an Agreement on Never Ending Negotiations“:
The atmosphere in the corridors of the conference centre is now quite strange. At first, NGOs have spent many hours reading the proposed texts up and down. After a few hours, the situation is now relatively awkward, with hundreds of delegates waiting for a verdict.
The proposed texts are clearly unsatisfactory.
As the evening turned to night, however, the plenary sessions of each Ad-hoc Working Group reconvened, and the word went out that (sometime) overnight, a deal would be done.
That night was strange and surreal. By ten o’clock, negotiators were asleep in the plenary and every couch in the ICC had someone napping on it. I visited a friend from the Canadian Youth Delegation at the Reuters desk in the International Press Centre downstairs. The only people who looked more exhausted than the negotiators were the journalists. I remember attempting to buy coffee at one am, behind a man who was implausibly enraged that he couldn’t buy a cheese platter to go with his wine (or wine to go with his cheese; I forget which) in the only cafeteria still open.
On the actual, substantive side, it became very clear that in both the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) and the Ad-hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA), the draft texts were clearly unsatisfactory to many States. Venezuela alleged that it had been threatened. The Chairs declined several delegates’ pleas to speak. Under the process of the UNFCCC, consensus is required. A draft text, once approved by the appropriate Ad-hoc Working Group, is passed onto the plenary session of the Conference of the Parties itself for final consideration. Two things seemed clear: The Conference of the Parties’ plenary would start in the early hours of the Sunday morning, and it would be controversial and hard-fought. Things seemed to be falling over – but didn’t.
We liveblogged developments here and on Twitter until 3:30am, as the COP plenary was getting into swing. Then, with a laptop on my lap, I fell asleep. I was woken by the Chair’s gavel falling at 6:30am, declaring the 17th Conference of the Parties closed. Frantically, I scrolled back through other blogs and our friends’ Twitter feeds, trying to work out what I had missed. It seemed that sheer exhaustion and frustration sealed the deal more than negotiation and diplomacy. Negotiators admitted to not having read the full text – but passed it anyway. From Adopt a Negotiator:
In the final plenary discussions on both the Kyoto Protocol and Long Term Cooperative Action, disagreements were gaveled past and disputed texts were forwarded to the main COP plenary despite objections. In the COP plenary decisions were pushed through at an incredibly quick rate, so much so that it was not clear that all parties understood what was going on and many objections from the earlier sessions were not dealt with. At one stage the Russian ambassador declared, that although he did not know what was going on, or what was being passed, he would nevertheless not block progress. Just how many other parties were similarly confused as decisions were gaveled through remains to be seen. So what did they actually decide on, and how is it going to affect our future?
I will not forget how the UN Security officer finally asked us to leave, shortly before 7:00 am:
It’s over. Please leave. It’s finished. It’s done. Nothing is happening, look. Just go. I want to go home. My plane leaves this afternoon. I want to see my family. I need to go back to my hotel. Please leave, so I can go home. Please…
Friday, at COP17, lasted 54 hours. It took its toll on everyone – even UN Security. Most of the NGO community was drained, totally exhausted. For the negotiators, it must have been worse. By the Saturday, several negotiators had, they told us, slept for less than three hours in four days.
When I got home, I trawled through every source I could, trying to work out not just what had happened during the last three hours that I had slept at COP17, but what had happened at COP17 overall, and what the outcome would mean.
The initial coverage was positive. For “the first time” (forgetting, perhaps, the Bali Roadmap) a global treaty on climate change was on the cards, said the Guardian. Naturally, the UN Secretariat welcomed the deal:
In a statement issued by his spokesperson Mr. Ban said the new accord is “essential for stimulating greater action and for raising the level of ambition and the mobilization of resources to respond to the challenges of climate change.”
Perhaps uncharacteristically, the Herald’s coverage (from AFP) was more uncertain, quoting Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace at length:
“The grim news is that the blockers lead by the US have succeeded in inserting a vital get-out clause that could easily prevent the next big climate deal being legally binding. If that loophole is exploited it could be a disaster,” said Greenpeace director Kumi Naidoo.
“Right now the global climate regime amounts to nothing more than a voluntary deal that’s put off for a decade.”
I began to piece it together and distill it down. What did the Durban Platform mean? In short:
- Negotiatons on a new track, to replace to AWG-LCA (though the AWG-LCA will have some final business left to finish), with a view to a new deal to be agreed by 2015 and in force by 2020. This deal will be “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force”, but might not be legally binding.
- On the AWG-KP track. very weak second commitment period, of uncertain length, under the Kyoto Protocol, amounting to very little more than a voluntary regime, but keeping the Kyoto Protocol market mechanisms alive.
- A renewed commitment to the Green Climate Fund of $100bn for climate change adaptation and mitigation every year from 2020 on – but still no idea where the money would come from.
- There were real changes in the geopolitics of the talks, with shifting alliances.
- States recognise the “Gigatonne Gap” between what they have committed to doing in terms of emissions reductions and the reductions needed to achieve the UNFCCC’s stated goal of limiting warming to two degrees – but aren’t (seriously) acting to close it.
For more detail of those outcomes, I really do recommend the links set out above. The deal was complex and almost Byzantine, and summarising it in five bullet points is definitely inaccurate – but you get the idea.
For me, though, the question was: Is this deal better than no deal? I kept returning to it.
The deal preserves the credibility of the UNFCCC system. It achieves progress in some areas. It provides a platform for global efforts at mitigation. It is definitely a step forward. Allowing four years to negotiate a new treaty and another five for it to enter force is, in truth, realistic. We don’t want another Roadmap that isn’t followed, or another Copenhagen, full of unrealistic expectations. We also don’t want another Kyoto Protocol situation, where a deal done in 1997 only became workable in 2002 after the amendments made by the Marrakech Accords, and years were lost before it entered force. Diplomatically, there’s no point rushing to a bad deal – or one that many States just won’t ratify.
On the other hand, more importantly, this deal almost certainly locks in at least two degrees climate change worldwide. Under the Durban Platform, the decade 2010-2020 could become the “lost decade” for climate change. And our situation is extraordinarily urgent. If emissions peak in 2020, by many studies, it would be impossible to reach two degrees warming. Others suggest that, worldwide, we’d need twice the emissions cuts of the fall of the Soviet Union (and the complete industrial and economic collapse it brought). With the emissions reductions proposals on the table, we are looking at warming of 3.5 degrees or more. According to the International Energy Agency, we have five years to achieve the two degree target. From that, scientific, perspective, a deal by 2020 amounts to little more than a deal on who will shut the barn door after the horse has bolted. To quote No Right Turn:
In other words, our governments at Durban have just decided to let the planet burn, so they can continue to live in artificial, unsustainable comfort for another decade. This isn’t just a matter of them ruining the world for their children and grandchildren; they’re also ruining it for you and me. I expect to live for another forty or fifty years, barring accidents. And these rich, polluting fucks have just decided that the world I’m going to be living in will be much worse than the one I live in now. As you might be able to tell, I’m pretty pissed about that.
Perhaps, I wondered, it would be better if no deal were done. A better outcome might be for the world’s governments and for civil society to fundamentally lose faith in the UNFCCC system, which, 20 years after the Framework Convention’s birth at Rio, has not halted or arrested climate change. Perhaps a failure in Durban could galvanise a popular movement into action.
So where did Durban go so wrong?
The problem, it seems to me, is a clash between two fundamentally different senses of what is realistic. I do not believe that the negotiators willingly sold out humanity. With respect to No Right Turn, I don’t think a decision was made to let the world burn. That’s understandable rage, expressing a fair sense of betrayal. But, fundamentally, the problem is the different timescales.
Climate change, though to many still appearing distant, demands urgent action. From a scientific perspective, only urgent action is realistic. To a climate scientist, the diplomats’ talk is unrealistic. It’s slow and ponderous and complicated and completely missing the point.
On the other side of the coin, to a diplomat, what is realistic is what is politically achievable. By any stretch of the imagination, what the diplomats are trying to do under the UNFCCC is ambitious. Drafting a text at the UNFCCC is drafting by committee, with 194 people with massively different worldviews and ideas and interests all fighting over the pen. I get frustrated trying to draft a document in a committee of four people – let alone 194. And each person – that is, each government – faces a barrage of interest groups firing salvoes of competing demands. And often those demands aren’t good ones.
I don’t envy the negotiators. Their job is extraordinarily hard. I might not always agree with many of them, but I can sympathise with them.
What is needed, I think, is a disruptive moment. We need a quite radical paradigm shift. We cannot go on relying upon the ponderous progress of international negotiations. They are too slow – and we cannot expect them to be faster. Their slowness is built into the structure of the system.
On balance, I think we are better off for the Durban Platform. It’s not ideal. If nothing more is done, it locks us in to two degrees of warming. But, in truth, the alternative could be nothing. Perhaps Durban is the difference between 3-4 degrees and 6-7 degrees. And that’s not good enough. It’s progress, but progress down a track that is simply too slow for what we need. We cannot leave the problem of climate change to the negotiators. The UNFCCC will not solve climate change.
It’s time for a massive popular movement. That, I think, could be the paradigm shift. George Monbiot declared in his book Heat that we in the industrialised world are climate change. We may be, as people, also the solution. After Durban, he concludedthat governments acted for the elites, not the people: they bailed out the banks but won’t spend the same on the climate. We, the people, can change that. I’m told that the international climate movement, in raw numbers, is already the biggest movement in human history. In raw numbers, this is already bigger the civil rights movement or the anti-slavery movement or any anti-war movement. Our governments will act when we make it clear that action is what we demand.
For the first time, over the next five years, our governments must do more than they have promised to do under the UNFCCC rather than less. It is up to us, as their citizens, to make them.
Originally posted by me on the New Zealand Youth Delegation website. All photographs and intellectual property in this post solely mine unless otherwise stated.