By Think to Sustain
With only days to go before the start of the next big round of climate change talks in Durban, South Africa, the stage is now set for a titanic clash between nations battling it out over the shape of any new UN global warming treaty.
The stakes could not be higher. Scientists say that the window for keeping the world’s temperature rise within a tolerable 2C limit is closing rapidly, yet despite the recession global carbon dioxide emissions rose by a record-breaking amount last year . For the climate negotiations to have any impact, countries must converge quickly on an agreement to peak and reduce global emissions – within the next few years at the latest.
But to see this primarily as a battle between developed and developing countries, as many commentators seem to, is to miss the bigger picture of shifting geopolitical and environmental realities in today’s world. This is not solely about rich versus poor. Instead, Durban will mostly be a confrontation between the strong and the weak – and without the protection of binding international environmental law, the weak know they will surely lose.
This is why a new legally binding, ambitious treaty is a central demand of geographically vulnerable nations like Bangladesh, least developed African countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania and Rwanda, and small island states such as the Maldives, for whose president I act as climate advisor. These nations know that letting the biggest polluters decide the rules will compromise their fundamental right to survival – and they are therefore preparing for a showdown in Durban.
When the UN climate system was first set up back in the late 1980s, the industrialised world contributed by far the most global greenhouse gases – and therefore the 1992 Climate Convention and 1997 Kyoto Protocol understandably envisaged emissions curbs for rich emitters only. Today, carbon emissions from OECD countries have declined by 6% since 1990, while the majority of greenhouse pollution now comes from the developing world – in particular China, India and Brazil.
To point this out is not to criticise these countries, nor to undermine their legitimate rights to development.
Nor are China, India and Brazil holding back in greening their economies. However, these countries are loath to make any meaningful commitments on the international stage that might constrain their energy options, and will be vociferously resisting the adoption of any legally binding targets of their own.
Instead, China, India and the more powerful members of the developing world are still insisting that the only outcome from Durban that matters is another round of the Kyoto Protocol for industrialised countries only. Climate-wise this makes little sense, because with the US on the sidelines and the recent inauspicious exits of Japan, Russia and Canada, Kyoto covers a dwindling 15% of global emissions. The sad truth is that Kyoto is being used as a negotiating ploy to delay the eventual adoption of a truly worldwide treaty on carbon emissions – which is the only way to comprehensively tackle climate change. (That treaty could still be Kyoto – but only if the big guys all sign up.)
So these are the real battle lines of Durban: on the one side stands an obstinate cabal of big emitters, developed and developing, who have little in common except an opposition to the prospect of any legally binding targets being inscribed in a new treaty. Step forward India, the United States, China, Japan and Canada.
On the other side stands a growing informal alliance of vulnerable countries, small island states, the European Union, several Latin American nations like Colombia, Costa Rica and Chile, plus Norway, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland, who have been meeting under the banner of the Cartagena Dialogue, and are all keeping the flame alive for meaningful progress.
These are the countries pointing out that a treaty implemented after 2020 will be too late to save the world from the threat of global warming – instead they want a 2015 timeline, with ambitious action in the meantime.
Whether this informal grouping of progressives can survive the strong-arm tactics of the powerful nations will be the real story of Durban.