Blogging Durban: Week 2, Day 2 (Dec 6)

Categories: Climate Change, Durban COP-17, International Relations

Well, Monday started out so promising, with an apparent signal from China that it would commit to a binding agreement on climate.  However, an analysis of what transpired today throws some cold water on the whole shebang.  Let’s see what happened today:

Slipping Beneath the Waves

Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon, observed that the Parties of the current COP are the ones who will determine how to address the problem of “…out of control climate change, a world divided bitterly between rich and poor, the vulnerable and the privileged…”  No pressure.  In doing so, he referred to very vivid anecdotes of resident children of Kiribati, fearing to go to sleep at night, due to the threat of their country “…slipping beneath the waves.”  So too, did he cite statistical evidence, such as UNEP’s climate change reports on the Emissions Gap and others.

Further, he responded directly to the repeated concerns that the global recession will make fighting climate change more difficult: “Yes, we all recognize the realities of our time, the economic crisis that dictates fiscal security.  Yet, the world cannot accept ‘no’ as the answer to Durban.  I say to you, this is the time to be ambitious.”  Restructuring national and global energy production (among other things) may be very costly in the very short term; however, rising sea levels, unpredictable agriculture, changes in precipitation – all this would dramatically damage (if you want to put an economic spin on it) global productive capacity.  In the Canadian NGO press conference, Gerry LeBlanc of the United Steel Workers similarly observes that shifting to a green economy is a forward-looking approach to thinking about jobs and the environment – really valid points, but some that are having a hard time gaining traction.

Ban Ki-Moon finally observed that $30 billion, in identified sources, has been earmarked for fast-start financing in the transition towards greener economies in LDCs.  “In Cancún, you created the Green Climate Fund.  Let us launch it here in Durban.”  It seems like the GCF is coming out of here alive: I’ll lay 4-1 odds on an institutionalized GCF by the end of Durban.  Any takers?

Seriously, Canada?

Today, Climate Action Network – Canada, on a panel led by Hannah McKinnon, spoke out bitterly against their government’s action on the UNFCCC.  “What happened to the Canada we know?” asks Stephen Guilbeult.  The panel goes on to point out that Canada – which again, has the 7th highest emissions per capita globally (PDF) – has poor records on 1) indigenous environmental rights; 2) commitments to the climate regime; 3) carbon dioxide emissions.  In particular, the reference by the Harper government to tar sands extraction as ‘ethical oil,’ rankles.  The point is driven home, when Daniel T’Solo, a Deneh activist points out the overwhelmingly disproportionate impact of tar sands extraction on indigenous peoples.

One of the positive developments seen here, is the attention to the local level impacts of climate change on different populations.  At the meeting of the state delegates, as much as the NGO conferences, people are stating concern about the impact of the poor in LDCs, as well as the poor in rich countries – this marks a welcome divergence from a state-centric look at negotiations, which does not capture the importance of societal and human diversity, and what it means for climate vulnerability.  The briefing ends with a really cute display of children’s art, illustrating their concepts of a just future and a just climate.  I believe the children are our future, etc.  Concluding, McKinnon notes that the stated withdrawal of Canada represents a “…failure of political leadership.”

Acting in a Responsible Way?

What to make of China’s recent statements that it will support a binding agreement?  Ostensibly, the reluctance of the major emitters in the developing world to iterated obligations has been the source of the tension and roadblock persisting so far in the debates.  Thus, if taken seriously, China’s recent statements could severely undermine the legitimacy of the US and Canada’s foot-dragging.  Xie Zhenhua certainly seems to buy into this, saying: “It’s time for us to see who is acting in a responsible way to deal with the common challenge of human beings.”

The problem is, it’s not clear today what kind of binding agreement China is discussing, since Xie’s statements today focused on the Kyoto Protocol.  While legally binding, it obviously carries no cost for China.  Thus, the public pronouncements by Xie may serve as a rhetorical cudgel to make the US and OECD defectors look bad, rather than make any progress (initial optimism notwithstanding).  While the Indian delegate mentioned the possibility of considering a second binding agreement, it’s certainly not obvious that this would include conditions for developing countries, a point that the delegate herself brought up.


The BASIC Countries – Brazil, South Africa, India, and China – acting as a bloc today, under the coordination of China, primarily have good rhetoric, but this should not be confused with any intent towards a binding regime.  Minister Xie Zhenhua claimed that “…we are countries of action.  the BASIC Countries, together with the G-77 group, will play an active and constructive role in implementing the UNFCCC, the KP, the Copenhagen Accord, and the Cancún Agreement.  The KP should be continued, and a second commitment period of the KP is a must.”

At the same time, the Indian delegate calls out the developed world as not fulfilling their obligations, asserting that the poorest of the world “…should not be expected to make legally binding commitments…” when they are struggling for basic survival.  While true, it is not clear how this precludes action by the industrialized and energy sectors of Brazil and China, at the very least.  Further, for the same reasons listed above, the KP is really attractive as a framework to developing countries (such as BASIC and the G-77), in that they don’t have to commit to anything, and can thus push for it without fear of political blowback.

The Per Capita Argument

The Indian delegate goes on to say that there should be equity in the use of atmospheric resources.  This is a really interesting argument.  Something to keep in mind is that the poorest countries tend to have a really minute impact on the climate in a per capita measure.  One way of thinking about this is that, if the atmosphere consisted of discrete units, which could be allocated to the world’s population, each American, Canadian and Russian (to use the hyperlinked report) would use far more than their fair share, while each Ethiopian, Tanzanian and Bangladeshi would use far less.  If we attempted to regulate climate according to per capita equity, the developed nations would have to cut overall outputs by staggering amounts – 80%, say – to allow the poorer populations more ecological space.  While certainly politically impossible, it’s worth thinking about precisely how problematic the current allocation of the world’s resources is.

Renewing Kyoto

Echoing many of the delegates, Ban Ki-Moon asserted that renewing the KP is sorely needed, stating that, as indicated in previous posts, climate financing, clean development, carbon trading, and afforestation projects are closely linked to the institutional framework of the KP.  Thus, while the regime itself does not provide much in the way of meaningful regulation (honestly, the US, the EU, and Canada’s position that – by only covering 25% of the world’s emissions – it is a poor regime, is a good one), its benefits may extend beyond its content, to the support it creates for other actions.  This may be the only purpose it serves, however, especially considering that some of the domestic commitments – such as those of the EU – far exceed the requirements of the KP.

And on that note, I leave you with the new theme song for the climate conference.  Enjoy.

About Kemi Fuentes-George

I am a professor in environmental studies and political science at Middlebury College.