Great Expectations for UN Climate Talks in Durban

While the U.S. flounders in the face of irreversible danger, climate finance and mitigation remain possible hopes.
Today, the UN climate change conference begins in Durban, South Africa. The 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the major global forum for climate change, with the aim “to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.” Though hopes have not been high after the U.S. announced just a week before the start of the conference that a climate treaty was not foreseeable until 2020, the urgency of a deal now could not be greater.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said earlier this November that the world has five years to avoid dangerous run-away climate change. The only way to prevent this is to rapidly transition away from fossil fuel infrastructure. IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol pointed to the importance of a globally binding deal saying, “If we do not have an international agreement whose effect is put in place by 2017, then the door will be closed forever.”
CO2 emissions rose by record amounts last year, despite the global recession. One of the key priorities is to negotiate and sign onto a legally binding agreement for the reduction of emissions to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. However, political pressure to bring about a Kyoto 2 has been modest and major polluters have not placed enough value on their promises to cut emissions. Mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions remains a major issue as well as a potential stumbling block.
Adding to the urgency, already poor countries along the equator will be the first to suffer the effects of dangerous climate change. These countries have little resources, technology, and money to adapt to a phenomenon they had little blame in bringing about in the first place. The ecological footprint of the average person in China, at 1.8 global hectares, is still only a fraction of the average American’s 9.0 global hectares. So developing countries and the global poor have been searching for justice and compensation through international environmental law. They have now put their hopes in the UNFCCC framework, especially in funding for adaptation and mitigation, and expect an equitable outcome.
Finance is therefore another crucial matter. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, among others, has called for the global Green Climate Fund, for which developed countries promised $100 billion annually by 2020, to be finalized at Durban. This would mean making the Fund, which a transitional committee has been planning since last year, operational at Durban. The fund should ideally be composed of new and additional funds in the form of grants, exceed the modest $100 billion promised, and include innovative sources to supplement public funds, including elimination of fossil fuels subsidies and the establishment of aviation and shipping taxes.
My personal favorite for innovative climate finance is the Financial Transaction Tax (FTT), endorsed by Bill Gates, which has outstanding potential to leverage greater funds in an equitable manner toward climate, poverty, and social justice issues. A tax of just 0.05% on speculative trade of financial products and specific transactions could generate between $400 billion and $1 trillion per year globally and bring much-needed stability to financial markets.
The U.S., however, has expressed that it will not sign the Green Climate Fund, along with Saudi Arabia, claiming the Fund does not sufficiently incorporate the private sector. This is hugely disappointing. The U.S. is responsible for almost a third of historical CO2 emissions over the past 150 years, ranking above the EU and accounting for three times the emissions of China. Climate models furthermore suggest that the cost of mitigation and adaptation grows exponentially with time: the longer we wait, the more people suffer. Above all, through its stubbornness, the U.S. is not only risking just the fate of poor countries and sinking island nations, it is also risking the fate of its own people. Food production is hindered by climate change, especially by extreme and unpredictable weather patterns that will affect the entire planet, including the U.S. Most major U.S. population centers are on the coasts and will suffer from rising sea levels. Delaying an internationally binding treaty is certainly not in the long-term interest of the U.S. and of American children to come.
Global democracy and social justice are at stake too. The UN’s credibility as a mediator of international issues like climate change, poverty, and health will be tested at Durban. If the test fails, it will have repercussions not only on important upcoming conferences like the UN Earth Summit in 2012, but also on our hope of democracy and justice in the world. Bilateral treaties will increasingly replace the perhaps imperfect but unprecedentedly democratic participation of diverse stakeholders at the UN. If we can’t work within the UN toward global justice, then where will we do it? COP17 must succeed in something globally significant, and, as outlined above, there are still ways this could happen.
As of now, delegates have two weeks to come up with this something. As part of a delegation at COP17, I will be reporting in from South Africa on the HPR Blog during the second week leading up to the end of negotiations. For COP17’s idealistic but hugely urgent motto, “working together, saving tomorrow today,” let’s keep fingers crossed.

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