COP 17 - Going nowhere slowly

Andreas Späth

I know I’m supposed to be getting really excited about the global climate change circus arriving on our shores for COP 17 which starts in Durban on Monday. But I can’t.

For close to two decades we’ve been asked to believe that the looming global disaster of catastrophic climate change can be solved by inter-governmental negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations. But what does this process have to show for itself?

The road to Durban - from Rio and Bonn to Bali and Cancún via Marrakech, New Delhi, Buenos Aires and Nairobi, among other exotic stopovers - is littered with agreements, action plans, accords and protocols, but very little concrete progress. It’s been a road to nowhere, as a brief look at some of the highlights will attest:

• In 1988, politicians and scientists attending a World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere agree that “humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war”. They recommend a 20% reduction of international CO2 emissions by 2005.

• At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is officially opened for adoption by countries. The convention encourages industrialised countries to voluntarily cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 1990 levels by 2000.

• The first annual Conference of the Parties (COP 1), comprising the signatories to the UNFCCC, takes place in Berlin in 1995.

• In recognition of the fact that the UNFCCC’s initial targets are inadequate, the Kyoto Protocol, adopted at COP 3 in 1997, commits 37 industrialised countries and the European community to legally binding reductions of GHG emissions of an average of 5% compared to 1990 levels, to be achieved between 2008 and 2012.

• The practical implementation of the Kyoto Protocol hits numerous snags and is severely hamstrung by the fact that it’s never ratified by the US Congress. In 2001 President George W Bush officially withdraws the USA from the process.

• The Bali Action Plan, forged at COP 13 in 2007, commits signatories to come up with a successor to the Kyoto Protocol by the time of COP 15 in Copenhagen.

• After much fanfare, no binding agreement is achieved in Copenhagen in 2009 and current negotiations continue to centre around what is to happen once the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period comes to an end on the 31st of December next year.

• In recent times, political wrangling has tended to overshadow climate science during the negotiations. Governments are in broad agreement that average global temperature increase needs to be restricted to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided, requiring global GHG emissions to peak and then decrease rapidly before 2020. A growing number of climate scientists believe that this is not enough to avoid disaster.

It’s widely acknowledged that Durban’s COP 17 is unlikely to deliver a comprehensive new plan and while our representatives have been talking up a storm at numerous international meetings for years, the climate change situation has been deteriorating.

The latest data indicate that global GHG emissions are rising faster than the worst-case scenarios previously envisaged by scientists. Last year, humans released more CO2 into the atmosphere than in any other year on record - 5.9% more than in 2009, making this the biggest annual increase yet.

And still the talking continues. Isn’t it time to acknowledge that this process has failed us? That we need to look for alternatives capable of producing actual results before it’s too late?

If recent history, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement, has taught us anything, it’s that real change doesn’t happen in the halls of governments or at negotiations in conference centres. It happens in the streets, when large numbers of outraged, ordinary people tell the powers that be that enough is enough.

Hey COP 17: Stop talking. Start acting.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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