Durban: it could have been worse. It should have been far better

David Thorpe
News Editor at EAEM
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Post date: Monday, 12th December 2011

It was never going to be easy.

Anyone watching or following, as I was, the high drama of the last three days of the climate negotiations in Durban must have thought it more gripping than any Hollywood political thriller.

There was the massive invasion of the conference hall by the protesters, welcomed by some delegates.

There was the issuance of a fake draft text agreement by someone in the South African delegation, widely seen as an attempt to subvert and delay the proceedings.

There were the delaying tactics employed not just by the organisers but by some developed countries in the hope that no agreement would be reached.

There were bleary eyed, desperate negotiators, knowing that the future of the planet was at stake, running on adrenaline after the coffee machines had been taken away because the conference was supposed to have finished.

There was the final, last-ditch huddle of the rich countries, with Russia objecting that it was left out, which patched together a final statement, in an echo of the final moments at Copenhagen.

But away from the conference hall and its echoes in the Twitter and blogosphere, the events there have struggled to gain space in national headlines.

The world seems more concerned with short-term but still vitally important issues, such as the protests in Russia and the future of the U.K.'s relationship with Europe.

Ultimately, however, the decisions taken, or deferred, in Durban are of far greater importance to far more people.

If they fail to capture the popular imagination it can only be because they are so mindbogglingly complex that it is too much to ask most of us, let alone reporters, to find an easy way to get our heads around them.

It's all about trust

At the very root of the discussions and decisions, as with all international negotiations, is trust.

People trust their representatives to come up with the solution that's best for all.

But nations have to be able to trust each other, and so must be able to verify what each other is doing.

Even trying to think about how the emissions inventories of every country on the planet can be quantified, reported on and, crucially, verified to everyone's satisfaction, to globally agreed standards, makes you realise how great is the scale of effort required.

And that's just a small part of it.

There's also the crucial question of how all the required measures are to be financed in a cash-strapped world; a world where every nation is now trying to look after its own economic survival.

The arguments that are going on within the UK government, about the cost of short-term spending on renewable energy versus the benefit of long-term energy cost reductions, are being mirrored in every developed country.

And every developing country is demanding that developed countries pay for similar emission-reducing measures on their territories.

Developed countries say that their institutions and corporations must financially benefit from these actions for them to have the motivation to invest.

Developing nations and their supporters say that this means that only actions which benefit already rich countries and corporations will happen, and the poor will miss out.

There is very little trust to be found here.

"A spectacular failure"?

The World Development Movement calls the outcome of the UN climate talks a "spectacular failure" since, by only agreeing to produce yet another report on financing with no guarantees that anything will come of it, after years of reports, promises and negotiations, "it will condemn the world’s poorest people to hunger, poverty and ultimately, death".

It predicts that the world is now on course for devastating temperature rises because of "the failure of developed countries to commit to action to curb their emissions".

"It is feasible that developed countries could actually increase their emissions between now and 2020, and still meet their pledged emission reduction targets" under the new Protocol, they said.

Their attitude was echoed by every major civil group observing the proceedings.

It is telling that one American report I read on the outcome said it was a victory for George W Bush's attitude that every polluter must pay. This was his reason for not signing up to the Kyoto Protocol.

If commentators are saying that George W Bush was right, then the planet is surely in trouble.

The least bad outcome

But the fact remains that the big emitters, besides America, are now developing countries, the so-called BASIC ones: Brazil, India, South Africa, Indonesia and China.

They have agreed to reduce their emissions.

Countries at Durban made determined efforts not to let the summit break up in disarray, but to come out with some kind of agreement, however imperfect.

Before this conference, it was predicted that Kyoto II would not happen, since Japan and Canada would prevent it.

It was also predicted that a global carbon trading system could not be set up and the best that we could hope for would be a loose network of local trading systems.

Notwithstanding the fact that it is highly imperfect as instituted so far, and criticised by civil groups, carbon trading as a way of raising funds for investment is still the mechanism by which forests will be saved and technology transfer is happening.

The EU has now said that it is determined to make sure that a single set of rules governs carbon trading throughout the planet.

What we have is probably the least bad outcome the summit could have had. It is very far from being the best.

The bottom line is, as we reported last week, that a handful of industrialists, the richest people on the planet, buy and bend the ears and opinions of members of the public and politicians with their extraordinary wealth, gained from profiteering out of fossil fuels.

Their negotiators come to these summits determined to minimise the harm to the fossil fuel and energy-intensive industries.

But the science is irrefutable. The moral force generated by the victims of climate change is undeniable.

As the effects of climate chaos become more and more apparent, and as the science of climate change becomes more undeniable, the ratcheting up of the ambitions stated at Durban, albeit in ambiguous terms, must and will continue.

But only if and because popular pressure will impel it.

The only questions are: will the measures taken be fast enough to avert catastrophe? And for whom: the rich or the poor?

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