Durban climate negotiations update

I’ve been following the COP17 climate change conference in Durban, South Africa from right here in Riverdale.  This will be a long, rambling omnibus post on my thoughts and concerns.

For Canadians, the story of this year’s COP has been primarily about Canada’s refusal to sign on for a second term of the Kyoto Protocol and the whispered threat that Canada is withdrawing from the agreement altogether.  This position, and its expression in both Canada and in Durban has won Canada the dubious place of honour of the largest number of “Fossil” awards from the Climate Action Network.  These are given to those countries who do most to obstruct progress in the negotiations toward a positive future.  In addition, Canada’s delegation took the brunt of many stunts.  A half dozen Canadian youth delegates silently “turned their backs” on Environment Minister Peter Kent when he addressed the plenary, later commenting that they were willing to be expelled from the negotiations because Canada has turned its back on them.  They received far greater sudden applause than Mr. Kent did.  Among the group was Brigette De Pape, the Parliamentary page who made headlines earlier this year when she was expelled for holding up a sign with the words “Stop Harper”.  That girl is quickly finding herself banned from a whole slew of places where she objects to the discussions.

I have to say, I have extremely mixed feelings about Canada’s withdrawal from Kyoto.  Clearly, my preference is for Canada to be an active and positive participant in international agreements.  And I cannot discount the toxic effect that Canada is having on the process with the threat of withdrawing altogether.  So I sympathize with those people calling on Canada to remain committed within Kyoto and to hop on board for a second commitment period. However, Canada has been negotiating in very bad faith among the group of Kyoto signatories (virtually every country except the United States), notably weakening the agreement with bogus land use loopholes.  Because Canada’s participation in the Kyoto Protocol effectively means that negotiations are hobbled, I can’t help but remember the plea, during the 2007 Bali COP 13, from the representative from Papua New Guinea that finally brought the United States to agree to allow other countries move forward:

“If you’re not willing to lead, please get out of the way”.

Right now, Canada is in the way.

We’ve actually been negotiating the weakening of the Kyoto Protocol, even as we don’t even plan to stick around and participate.  So in many ways, if we’re not going to be supportive, we might as well get out as soon as possible.

Environment Minister Peter Kent has the unenviable position of defending Canada’s horrifying diplomatic stance.  He has approached it with deft sleight-of-hand, with repeated spin about how Canada is only responsible for 2% of the world’s emissions and is being unfairly picked on.  He wants to ensure that the big emitters, notably China and the United States are signed onto any binding agreement in the future.  Sounds so reasonable, but it’s so wrong.

I fondly remember a time when Canada was not making excuses but proudly leading the charge to do the right thing.

Mr. Kent invariably fails to mention four important details.  First, that Canada is actually the 8th highest global carbon emitter, with each of the countries higher than us on the list having a population more than double ours.  Second, that Canada only has 0.5% of the global population, so our individual emissions are 4 times the global average.  There are 27 countries with larger populations than Canada but which emit less carbon than we do.

Thirdly, Canada has been working closely with the oil industry to hobble any clean fuel standards which might eventually impede Canada’s ability to peddle our poison at will.  And Canada has been actively lobbying the United States to build the Keystone XL pipeline as part of its plan to expand tar sands oil five-fold.  Now, given that our government has taken such an active interest in ensuring the continued extraction of a product which climate scientists have determined will single-handedly eliminate any prospect of meeting the targets even Canada has agreed to, it would only be fair to include the effect of this campaign under our international responsibility.  Tar sands oil fuels about 12% of the US vehicle fleet, and is responsible for additional emissions associated with the refining of the stuff.  If Canada has its way and tar sands extraction quintuples, that tar sands oil will be responsible for the equivalent of about 2/3 of American vehicle emissions.

It is grotesquely perverse of Canada to continually point the finger at the United States and suggest that we cannot act on climate change while our neighbour to the south does not, while at the same time ramming our tar sands down the throat of that same neighbour.  And of course, even outside of the Kyoto Protocol, the United States is doing far more to combat climate change than Canada is.

As a fourth point, it’s pretty sickening for Canada to criticize China.  Yes, China’s emissions cannot keep growing if we are to have the deal the world needs.  But having failed so spectacularly to meet our own binding international commitments, we are in absolutely no position to demand that China should be forced into binding reductions when the average Chinese still emits 1/3 of the average Canadian.

Last year, I attended the COP16 in Cancun.  Many of those most concerned about climate change criticized both the process and the outcome of the UN negotiations, and advocated for taking it to the streets.  While I’m all for mobilizing the public with popular action, it is dangerous delusion to imagine this can replace international negotiations.  What it can undeniably do is to help nudge the process along and mobilize public opinion to the commitments we need.  I understand the frustration with a UN process that seems to be spinning its wheels on real climate mitigation while setting into motion a thousand loopholes.  In 2009, 17 year old Christina Ora from the Solomon Islands, who is facing the prospect of watching her entire country disappear beneath the seas, addressed the Copenhagen COP plenary with this message:

Young people and youth organizations have joined hands as one to prevent you from negotiating away our future.  We, as youth, are mobilizing support for millions of people all over the world for the fair, adequate and legally binding agreement we deserve.  It is now your responsibility to build on this support to finally take political action because now is the time.  I was born in 1992.  You have been negotiating all my life.  You cannot tell us that you need more time.  Please commit to these decisions now, because you hold our futures in your hands, and survival is not negotiable.

Yes, the COPs are frustrating and slow.  They require virtual unanimity, and every country opposes anything that might harm its economic interests.  What’s more, the delegations are hobbled by corporate lobbyists more interested in maximizing profit (through offsets, bogus forest protection schemes and other shell games) than in ensuring what the science demands.  The COPs may not ever achieve the agreement future generations need.  Still, we know that climate change is global in scope and that unilateral action can never hope to solve it.  The temptation of cheap energy will simply be too great for most countries.  Without any kind of international agreement in place, what we’ll end up with is dramatically worse, no matter how many climate activists we mobilize globally.  We might still get some global action without a UN agreement.  For example, the G-20 have occasionally put climate change on the agenda, proposing to settle behind closed doors, among the wealthiest nations, a formula for the rest of the world to swallow.  Or, eventually an ascendant military power might take matters into its own hands.  I cannot imagine that such global solutions would be any more satisfying than the product of UN negotiations.  In other words, disastrous as the UN system is, the alternatives are significantly scarier.

Last year’s conference was all about rebuilding faith in the negotiating process, as many delegations felt seriously burned by the fiasco in Copenhagen, where the host country first tried to impose its own document onto the negotiations, then accepted another agreement hammered out by a few select countries behind closed doors.  In Cancun, the negotiation process was brought back into some sort of order, with an outstanding COP president clearly committed to ensuring that transparency and goodwill prevailed in the negotiations.  The document that came out of that round, though, was very weak.  It had a good sturdy skeleton but lacked any meat.  It committed both to limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (above pre-industrial levels) and to considering the much tougher target of 1.5 degrees.  It also committed to a number of important principles, such as respecting rights of indigenous peoples and the just transition for labourers into a new clean-energy economy.  But it offered no insights at all into how any of these goals would be achieved.  I thought that we would need to focus on ensuring that document was strengthened leading up to Durban.  And we would need to rely on Kyoto until and unless any other agreement emerged that could supercede it.

The necessary strengthening did not happen.  The world is sleepwalking into disaster.  What’s being discussed in Durban is a proposal by the United States to delay to 2020 before any serious action is taken at all.  President Obama is putting his faith in the magic of technology that will arrive at a future date, and does not appear to understand that in the meantime, we are poisoning our grandchildren.  That delay would very likely be paid for with hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of deaths later on this century.  Most delegates understand this.  We have run out of tomorrows.

In a face-saving measure, Peter Kent today made a big show of saying that he wanted a binding agreement in place by 2015.  The only problem is that he hasn’t made any new offer that would make an agreement any more likely, nor has he made any motion to explain how he would speed the process.  The agreement he demands – one where the Chinese, each of whom use less than a third of the carbon each Canadian uses, agree to binding emissions cuts of the type Canada failed spectacularly at, before Canada will even consider signing on – isn’t going to happen at all because it’s a ludicrous demand.  To paraphrase what Peter Kent is saying, he’s suggesting that “We’re eager to sign on in four years provided that the Chinese agree to cripple their own economic development first, even though their standard of living is still well below our own”.

Let me make it clear.  China’s emissions cannot continue growing uncontrolled.  But China has been negotiating in much better faith than Canada, continually putting new offers on the table.  If developed countries make a decent counter-offer, China can be brought on to play its part.  It is Canada that is obstructing progress.

Last year also marked the moment when I lost hope that we could achieve a fully satisfying agreement.  This is not a political assessment, it’s a scientific one.  We have simply lost too much time.  The only realistically suggested ways of achieving the 1.5 degree target or 350 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide  (which appears to be necessary both for keeping the low-lying areas of the world – where 1 billion people live – above the waves and for preventing the collapse of much of our oceans due to acidification) all involve relying on deep negative emissions, by continually replanting, burning and sequestering the carbon from purpose-grown forests blanketing the planet.  In effect we’re pitting the rights of the inhabitants of low-lying areas of the planet against the rights of indigenous people to live on traditional lands.  Rapid decarbonization also threatens economic growth when it demands stripping away existing energy sources before we have an opportunity to replace them with clean energy.  We could have had a much smarter transition to a cleaner, healthier future had we taken our promises seriously 20 years ago.  Now we’re really talking about damage control – limiting the damages to some unsatisfying level.

That doesn’t mean that negotiations aren’t important.  They are now more important than ever.  But it was a much more obvious and emotionally gratifying battle when we could propose to satisfy all the human constituencies simply by putting a choke hold on oil industry profits.  Now, the various human interests are directly in conflict.

In the midst of this whirlwind of COP-related info, I got a pointer to a newly published scientific assessment from climatologist Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.  It expresses in pretty stark terms the scale of the challenge we face.  Mr. Anderson calculates that we would need to either face the prospect of a prolonged  and devastating global recession to achieve the 2 degree target (never mind the 1.5 degree target) or a difficult but manageable sustained wartime-like effort over many decades to stay on the pathway toward a much more likely endpoint of 4 degrees, which is so disastrous that it would be unthinkable if policy makers grasped the consequences.  I found a 2009 talk by Kevin Anderson that covers the same material more approachable than the peer-reviewed paper:

I fear that Mr. Anderson may be correct in everything he says, though I cringed near the end of his talk at his suggestion (which I always do whenever others say it) that what may finally spur humanity into action would be a devastating event clearly linked to climate change, that hits a wealthy constituency.  I don’t even want to toy with the idea of counting on disaster.  I find it repugnant.  I’m also not convinced that it will help.  It took less than a year after the Deepwater Horizon sank for people to go from demanding stricter controls on offshore rigs to demanding faster development of offshore resources as oil prices rose.

Now, having followed a number of COPs, I know that often there is a dispiriting sense of the direction a few days before the close of negotiations, and then a breakthrough is made at the very end.  In Bali, both the United States and Canada were eventually shamed into better behaviour.  So I’m still crossing my fingers about the outcome in Durban.  But it is certainly looking grim now.

Here are some more videos for those who are gluttons for climate news.  Here’s Elizabeth May talking about Canada’s position:

Here is Christina Figueres, the president of the UNFCCC, speaking about the objectives of the Durban Conference.  Note that the global agreement of fair and balanced agreements, where countries have “common but differentiated responsibilities” refers to the recognition that developed countries must lead the way forward — a long-standing and solid principle of the entire United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of which Canada has been a signatory from the beginning, and that the Canadian delegation repudiates with every statement:

And here’s a beautiful, inspiring video that I saw at the day of actions marking the midpoint of this year’s COP meeting:

For those who want to do something to prod negotiations in the right direction, here are a couple of easy actions:

  1. Sign the Avaaz petition demanding that countries hold fast to Kyoto and build on it.
  2. Use the Sierra Club site to demand from Prime Minister Harper that Canada negotiate in good faith and pledge to do its fair share as a developed nation, in line with our international commitments over many decades.

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