Politics of Poverty

The Durban climate deal leaves a blank page

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Following Durban, there is now the proverbial ‘more work to be done’, but it’s far more than work that we need.

This blog was written by David Waskow, climate change program director.

I’ve just returned from COP 17, the major UN climate conference in Durban. It was the longest COP ever, one that culminated in an all-night session Saturday into Sunday, with dramatic speeches in the final plenary and a huddle of negotiators in the middle of the plenary to work out the final details.

I’ve returned quite sober. With the outcome, an important page was turned in the climate talks, but the next page in the negotiations is still utterly blank.

On the one hand, there was agreement to start negotiations on a legal agreement to reduce the climate emissions of all major emitters, with a deal to be finished by 2015 for implementation starting in 2020. Until 2020, the Kyoto Protocol will continue as the foundation of global efforts to fight climate change, with the EU countries agreeing to a second phase, albeit without Japan, Russia, and Canada. And the Green Climate Fund was fully put into motion, with a fair framework adopted for how the Fund should operate to provide finance for developing countries to combat the causes and consequences of climate change.

But we’re now staring at the next blank page, and it’s rather terrifying how blank it is. There’s no clarity at all on how much emissions will be cut in the future agreement at a moment when the current likeliest trajectory is for temperatures to rise more than five degrees F above pre-industrial levels. Meanwhile, though there is a work program and a science review about needed emissions cuts, the Durban deal provided no assurances on getting stronger action on emissions in the years before 2020.

And there was no agreement on any specific sources of funding to fill the new Green Climate Fund (more on finance coming in a future blog post).

The United States played a familiar role in the talks, often bogging them down by fighting to resist any conditions that would push the US too far, sometimes in subtle but powerful ways. Most obviously, the US blocked any discussion of specific sources of climate finance and blocked detailed language on a ‘work program’ to examine how much emissions need to be cut.

When the EU and many vulnerable countries pressed for a serious legal agreement, the US insisted that all countries be on the same legal level; that left countries like India deeply concerned that they would be forced into overly stringent conditions. When the US finally went along with language for a ‘legal instrument’, the fight that broke out in the plenary was between the EU and India, while the US stood back and watched (in the final plenary, the chief US negotiator spoke for all of about 60 seconds).

And the final text of the agreement made no distinction at all between the relative effort required between the richest countries and those where millions of people still live in poverty and hunger.

Following Durban, there is now the proverbial ‘more work to be done’ (ironically even more fitting right now given the many so-called work programs that were begun at Durban on issues such as needed emissions cuts and sources of finance). For starters, with all major emitters part of a potential new deal, we have to press hard on what the fair share of emissions cuts should be based on differing levels of responsibility for emissions and differing levels of development.

But it’s far more than work that we need. We need alarm bells to ring in the next few years to put us on a path that will truly deal with the way in which a changing climate is creating increasingly severe storms and water scarcity. Hard-hit communities in developing countries deserve no less than a major outpouring of concern and upset over what will happen to them. We especially have to make sure the US wakes up to the situation since the US will continue to set the pace and tone for the global climate talks ahead.

For another Oxfam perspective, see Tim Gore’s blog here.

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