The Long Road Back to Rio
Part 1: Evading the Climate Conundrum
I am only a child and I don’t have all the solutions, but I want you to realise, neither do you. You don’t know how to fix the ozone layer, you don’t know how to bring the salmon back up a dead stream. You don’t know how to bring back an extinct animal and you cant bring back the forest that once grew, where there is now a desert. If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it.
It was 1992 and the venue was the Earth Summit in Rio. The piercing voice of 12 year old Severn Suzuki made delegates sit erect, take notice and applaud in unison to the unadulterated wisdom and articulacy of the young delegate who had traveled 5000 miles to make her voice heard.
But the prognosis for success at this sequel event, in terms of achieving stronger commitments to combat climate change remains mixed at best as world leaders are still recovering from the hangover of the 2009 Climate Conference in Copenhagen.
Twenty Year Stalemate
The 1992 Earth Summit at Rio addressed the two pivotal challenges of bio-diversity erosion and climate change and was responsible for creating the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
At the conclusion of the Rio summit, 194 nations signed the UNFCCC. It was of historic importance. Their signatures acknowledged that reckless human consumption was creating an anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Hence, their collective goal would be to stabilise concentration of green house gases in the atmosphere.
Alas, the main principles laid forth at the 1992 summit were rampantly ‘broken’ at an accelerated pace to the point that today’s greenhouse gases are rising more rapidly than before the UNFCCC came into being.
An important goal at Rio should be expediting the momentum for reduction targets for the 90 countries that contribute to 80 percent of global emissions. Failure to do so will mean an indefinite vacuum in global commitments toward combating climate change. Given the decelerated momentum in recent years, a total collapse without a future climate treaty to commence in 2013 will prove expensive to the world.
Over the last few months the UN made it increasingly clear that “green development, green energy, job creation, and sustainability” will form the crux of the Rio+20. However, it is futile to evade the interrelatedness of climate change with these issues. Countries from the industrialised world with a history of emitting the highest levels of greenhouses gases, led by the US and EU nations including Germany and France, will not send their leaders to Rio. The corporations that they support will assert their omnipotence in tackling a “green and sustainable” economy.
Interview with Mr. Nikhil Seth Director Division For Sustainable Development
The Earth’s citizenry was expected to change its habits after 1992 but governments were clearly not inclined to do so. Economy took precedence over ecology and we return to Rio with a more blurry vision of what a sustainable future will entail and with much weaker will from governments to pledge aid towards combating climate change because that same economy is in shambles.
The Pockmarked Road to Climate Change Commitments
It was the largest media event to have taken place in the Scandinavian city of Copenhagen. It was the deemed the most ambitious UN conference, attended by 140 heads of state. The otherwise sleepy capital was enveloped by eclectic delegations from policy makers to activists to corporations. People from all walks of life and different geographical regions had a stake in the matter. The future of the earth’s sustenance depended on the success of the conference, or so the marketing campaigns for “Hopenhagen” claimed.
The conference at Bella Centre in the outskirts of the city was the size of a small metropolis. The media section on its own, which became my office space for two weeks was comprised of 3000 journalists. From Bangladesh to Brazil, a majority of countries’ delegations worked furiously for two weeks in the hopes that the meeting would climax with a internationally ratified treaty.
Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC convened the summit with cautious optimism since charting the Bali Road Map.
The aim here is not to celebrate the victory of one nation over another, of one group over another. The aim is to find solutions instead of letting problems continue… Science tells us that we have a window of opportunity in which we can still act, in which we still have a good chance of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. The solutions exist. The will exists. The question is, will we, as humanity, rise to the occasion and seize the opportunity to agree to solutions?
The 15th Conference of Parties met in Denmark in 2009 with the objective of finalising a post-Kyoto international agreement on climate change to take effect in 2013. For all intents and purposes, the COP15 failed and was followed by similar impasses in Cancun and Durban. One year away from the deadline, the world community is woefully lagging in making concrete commitments.
Unfortunately, the historic episode was doomed before its even commenced. It was clear that the leading and most influential states were entering under the premise of obtaining the most lucrative ‘compromises.’ The US, EU, China, India and Brazil were pre-occupied with securing favourable deals over treating the climate crisis conundrum as a serious threat. As with all other negotiations ‘vested interests’ took precedence over global welfare and a secure future. It was yet another case which illustrated what usually happens when world leaders try to meet on a common platform– political wrangling, geopolitics, favouritism and bickering that mirrored a high school flick.
They are still regarded as the most progressive measures to be drawn up by the world community in an effort to combat catastrophic emission levels. Adopted in 1997, the protocol introduced binding agreements for 37 industrialised countries and the EU to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at an average of five percent against 1990 levels over a five-year period from 2008 to 2012.
But the protocol is not without its problems. It created the ‘carbon market’ where carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas could be traded like any other commodity. Under a “Cap-and-Trade” system, governments could allocate allowances to companies wanting to emit a certain amount of gas. The premise being that heavy polluters will be discouraged due to the expensive allowances while the cleaner companies could trade their unused quotas for profit and thereby rewarded. While the trading system proved to be effective in cases such as reductions in sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide trading, which led to a 20 percent emission reduction over a 5 year period in the US. Such trading also meant that companies would simply buy credits from other companies when in a fix, instead of investing in long term solutions to reduce emissions.
Yet, since 2005, it has been the only available foundation upon which countries can build more aggressive commitments. At the Durban Climate Conference of 2011, state parties that are signatories to the Kyoto Protocol attempted once again to finalise a second commitment period to start on Jan 1, 2013.
The US, however, is not a signatory to Kyoto because despite progressive negotiations by the Clinton administration, the US Senate vehemently rejected the protocol claiming that ‘crude divisions’ between the developed and developing world do not match up with the fact that China is currently the largest emitter in the world. Following non-participation by the US, currently the second largest polluter in the world, China along with other large contributors Brazil, Canada and Japan refused to extend a Kyoto like treaty. In contrast, the European Union, motivated by the potential for economic growth in the form of ‘green jobs’ continued its commitment towards a post-Kyoto framework, calling for ambitious emission targets that went beyond the 20 percent commitment, to last until 2020. Neither Cancun nor Durban broke the deadlock between the different negotiating blocs.
‘Developing’ versus ‘Developed’
Unfortunately, the latest Bonn Climate Talks which took place on 25 May 2012 lead to yet another step backwards, where the Annex 1 countries, including the EU, backtracked from their original commitments and once again remained defiant over divisions between the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world. The US and EU expressed that the system under Kyoto “does not reflect current economic realities,” especially for countries like China, that have undergone rapid industrialisation or for those like Singapore, wealthier than the US (per capita), yet defined as a ‘developing’ nation.
Defining the process became the pre-occupation of the Bonn talks, once again derailing concrete commitments. This, in turn, will lead to an even more muted outlook for explicit emissions reduction goals and funding pledges at Rio. Most environmental NGOs are understandably concerned that the ‘elephant in the room’ will be evaded, corporations with the aid of powerful states, equipped with the right technology, will privatise sustainable development ventures, rendering the term ‘green economies’ more meaningless than when it was first coined.