How to rewrite the Durban script

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

imageIt’s that time of the year again. Climate change talks are heating up, with the next conference of parties scheduled in Durban in end-November. There is heat but no light. The negotiations are stuck despite the clear signs of climate change: dangerous and potentially catastrophic extreme weather events.

Not much is expected in Durban, except the usual shadow-boxing. The European Union is leading the pack of climate champions. It wants the world to fast track negotiations for a single, legally binding treaty on cutting emissions. It does not say (loudly) that its real plan is to junk the Kyoto Protocol, which demands that industrialised countries cut emissions marginally, roughly 6 per cent below the 1990 levels by 2008-2012. The agreement in this Protocol is that rich countries, major historical and current emitters, go first, creating ecological and economic space for the developing world to grow. In time, the rest would follow. To facilitate actions in the developing and emerging world, technology and funds would be committed. All this done well would lead to a real deal. But it was not to be.

The US and its allies walked out of the Kyoto Protocol and now EU wants to dump it as well. It finds it difficult to meet its commitments to reduce emissions domestically.

At Durban, once again the stage is set for a dud act. EU will advocate climate action and its proposal for a single, legally binding treaty will get predictable responses. The US, the world’s biggest climate renegade, which pulls all strings, will oppose the proposal. Its objective is to do little at home, but most importantly, not to be made responsible for taking action based on contribution to the problem. It wants the distinction between the past and present polluters to be removed. It wants no discussion on a legal instrument. The other big polluting guns—Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Canada—will stand behind the US.

In the Durban-script the roles for the rest of the actors have also been written. The Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), which is rightfully angry over inaction, will go with the EU-designed approach. It will see no choice but to back EU’s proposal, even as it knows the stalemate will only prolong. On the other hand, China and India will side with the US and join the deniers. The rest, with small differences, will wait for the game to play out.

The host, South Africa, will want a deal in its city. What will this be? This country more than any other reflects the climate dilemma: to act or not to act? It has very high per capita emissions—almost equal to Europe’s —but it is yet to share economic benefits and energy access with its majority poor. It is dependent on coal mining and exports, which it cannot jeopardise. But it wants to play the gracious host and somehow get its basic friends—the coalition of the emerging polluters, Brazil, India and China—to dine the last supper. Brazil may play along; it hosts the next big environment summit and would want to look good. But China and India will know too much is at stake. Once they accept a single instrument, they will have to take costly action, with no resources.

The die is not even cast. But the end game is known.

So what can change the outcome? I believe there is no other way but that the developing world regroups and takes leadership. Our world is the worst hit. We do not need to be preached about the pain of climate change. We know it. This leadership will require making tough demands. It will mean demanding drastic emission reduction targets for the rich world. But it is equally important that our world does not hide behind the intransigence of the US. Our world must explain that it is already doing much to reduce emission intensity of its growth—growth of renewables in China, reduction of deforestation in Brazil and energy efficiency in India. It can and will do more. However, the high costs of transition to low-carbon growth must be paid for. This leadership must be firm on principles of climate justice and effective action.

This approach, I know, will be scoffed at and derided as being impractical. It is partly because the non-governmental groups following climate negotiations mirror the divide in the world. One half, the followers of the US and its grouping, will say this stance will jeopardise their democratic government and bring back the dreaded Republicans—Neanderthals who do not believe climate change is real. The other group, followers of EU and its grouping, will say this is good in words, but will not lead to effective action. In Durban they will want a deal, at whatever costs.

But their hedging will hide the one truth that needs to be revealed: most of the low-hanging fruit—easy options to reduce emissions—have already been picked in the climate-threatened world. This fact cannot be more inconvenient coming at a time when the rich world is faced with a double-digit recession; the euro-zone is threatened; and people are worked up against austerity measures.

The Durban deal (like its predecessors Copenhagen and Cancun) will be bad for all if not based on accepting the hard truths of climate change. It is time we grew up.

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  • I entirely agree with Sunita

    I entirely agree with Sunita Naraian's view that Durban will achieve nothing. But if that were to be so, then I can only say that so be it. Aside from the fact that there is as yet little established evidence as yet that Climate is really changing, as some self-styled climatologists want us to believe, rather naively, though. But whether climate is changing or not, (in my 82 years of life, I have really not experienced any change at all), frankly when the world is struggling to recover from the deep recession, and even the developing countries like China and India, which are surely slowing down, with inflation crippling their economies, it would be absurd for anybody in sound mind proposing seriously to take steps to cut emissions at the cost of economic recovery, let alone growth per se. With global population touching seven billion now, and unemployment in the developed world remaining unprecedentedally high, and poverty,far from coming down, actually rising in developing countries like India, it is not just sufficient, but absolutely essential to put the issue of climate change under the carpet at Durban. In fact, I strongly think that this alternative year tamasha may at best be set at rest, and kept in cold storage for the next few years, if not the current decade. Surely, heavens are not going to fall,if the world ignores this alleged climate change issue altogether.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Whether climate change is a

    Whether climate change is a proved science or not, it is common sense to agree that uncapped emissions cannot be allowed anymore. As long as the growth and development is not trickled down to meet the needs and aspirations of all sections, especially the poor, I would consider anyone/any country a traitor who, in the name of development, subscribe to unjust exploitation of natural resources that govern the very existence of the poor. And here is where the climate justice needs to be delivered, that too in time. Else, we may have fetched the ticket but would have missed the bus!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I completely agree with this

    I completely agree with this approach. Climate change treaties like these, have become total oxymorons in themselves. How can a super-critical issue like Climate Change, be discussed by flying to the conference, by staying in an airconditioned hotel and adding tonnnes to the atmosphere to save the atmosphere per say....!!! If we sit down and attempt to reckon the carbon footprint of CoPs like these, we would be compelled to say this to ourselves, that we better stop thinking of saving the planet...!! Strange but true. It's time that we retrospect the predecessors of Durban and try and analyse the causes of failure.As what is rightly mentioned in the article, its going to be another session of shadow boxing, with no fruitful outcomes. Historical emitters do not want to take the responsibilites of their past deeds.They just want to play the blame game. But then the world, including the North, should now realise that climate change is unequivocal. Even if we stop our emissions as I write this article, the climate is going to lay its catastrophic and uneven impacts on the vulnerable. The least contributors to the problem are the most hit.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Why will the idea of

    Why will the idea of developing countries taking leadership get scoffed? Oh wait, I know why! Because those who propose such ideas never take it seriously themselves. The fact is that developing countries CAN and MUST take leadership. Any amount of reiteration here is insufficient when we say that the third world will be the most/worst affected by climate change. But an otherwise uninspiring piece from Sunita. Disappointing!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I am amazed at the above

    I am amazed at the above comments revealing ignorance of the essentially settled science that climate change is very much or maybe largely affected by humans. I thought readers of Down to Earth and most scientists in India understood it- and perhaps most do. My suggestion is that Down to Earth start a blitz of communications with university relevant department heads and scientific organizations to each blitz the Ministries of Environment and Forest, Economics, Industries, etc and the PM, hold conferences where those worthies along with media persons etc are invited to speak and discuss, and make this a big public relations issue. We will regret it if we fail on this issue in our later years and the lifetime of our children. Thaks, Sunita, for the editorial.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • There are no easy options ÔÇô

    There are no easy options ÔÇô good reasoning, logic, persistence, perseverance and good arguments, I believe would one day convince ÔÇ£everyoneÔÇØ to agree on the urgent need for emission reduction. I am hopeful, Durban would be yet another milestone in this direction. Your vision and arguments certainly cannot remain overlooked for long. I am sure Emission Reduction impasse would usher an era of Global Cooperation on reciprocal benefits and strengthen the cause of Sustainable Development; none can escape from the reality of carrying forward our today for the tomorrow of future generations ÔÇô This maxim has remained valid as the thread of evolution for millions of years since this unique planet came into existence some 4.6 billion years ago; those who resisted the need to change or the need to adapt became extinct along the evolutionary trends. thnks

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • You have upped the ante

    You have upped the ante forewarning that nothing positive would emerge with regard to reducing carbon emissions and climate change. Kyoto protocol has long been dumped. Political cartelization of the West to protect their economic interests in the name of global economy in this unipolar world is hard to crack. A weak leader like Manmohan Singh is too gleeful to rub shoulders with the US and do the abject surrender of India’s holistic interests. In fact we have seen high drama on other international fora like Davos meets and G-20 summit etc., save that big brothers have only benefited. To mention a point, while the US have arm-twisted the Swiss for revealing the tax evaders’ dollars deposited there, Indian Govt. is forced to take cover under silly protocol to not reveal the names or tighten the screws on those Indian nationals who have stashed away so much black money in Swiss banks. Now on climate change catastrophe I think the West, Russia and China all together have devastated the earth crust and the sea bottom many times over with their unbridled thermo-nuclear tests, while they have imposed restrictions on nations like India. Sometime back you discussed the danger of accepting the imposition of Monsanto’s Bt brinjal. We have seen the damage wrought by Bt. Cotton on the climate and ecology. Now I find a news item that Indian scientists join race in cracking gnome of the wheat. So we will soon have GM wheat to produce more despite the bumper crop (84 million tons this year) to make up for the world’s shortage that has been caused by the dreaded climate change. Interestingly, Felix Padel, great, great grandson of Charles Darwin takes up the cudgel to fight for our case. He has spoken against the corporate land mafias who are damaging the ecosystems in India by flushing out the tribal communities. He has criticized the West for contortion of Darwin and Spencer’s survival of the fittest theory to suit capitalism. Propagation of life is under real threat because of capitalists' greed leading to climate change.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Madam I wonder if any

    Dear Madam I wonder if any one has noticed that in most of the so called underveloped and developing nations the clothes are air/sundried, thus saving lot of energy which is used in modern washing machines. We possibly cannot ignore it considering the population in these countries. I am sure any scientist /engineer can calculate this impact on carbon saving. While calculating the carbon foot print of these nations due to industrial production, the reduction of CO2 generation by such eco-friendly measures must also be accounted for.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Nice one and a great eye

    Nice one and a great eye opener.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply