On the 17th of November, Grahamstown, a small town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, held a roundtable on COP 17, bringing together stakeholders from across the community.
They discussed climate change and the upcoming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17), which was to occur in just under two weeks’ time just under 10 hours’ drive up the coast in Durban. One of the aims of the roundtable was to ascertain what the community believed to be the most important ways to address the challenge of climate change and education came out on top of the list.
The community’s insight was reiterated moments after the roundtable when I was approached by a group of grade 11 students who were the leaders of their school’s environmental group. One of the questions they had for me was: what is COP 17? They did not know and yet they attended one of the top schools in South Africa.
That probably would have shocked me considerably, had it not been for my experience volunteering in township schools on various different educational field trips and workshops where I continually discover learners quite unaware of what climate change is. I know that the Eastern Cape is a disaster area when it comes to education, but nonetheless I am appalled that so many learners do not know about one of the most important issues of their time, as well as about the conference their government is spending R350m hosting. What makes this even more unacceptable is that this is occurring across the Eastern Cape which is likely to suffer from the effects of climate change and where many are already citing climatic irregularities.
shedding some critical light on COP17
In light of this gap in education I thought I would write a brief introduction to COP 17 in the hope of shedding some critical light on the matter. Let me start, as philosophers like to do, with a thought experiment – adapted from John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance. Throughout I will assume a basic knowledge of climate change and an acceptance of the scientific consensus on humanity’s role in inducing global warming.
Imagine that you are the architect of the global response to climate change – a climate dictator or even climator if you will. However, you don’t have knowledge as to which generation, group, class, nationality or gender you will be after you have constructed the response (and if you’re a deep ecologist you can also add species to this list). Because of this ignorance you are no longer biased towards any of the categories mentioned, and are thus an impartial architect. Let’s go through some of the considerations you will have to take into account as a climator:
Firstly, in order to stop dangerous human interference with the climate system there is a global carbon budget of about 870 Gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent between now and 2100, which needs to be distributed fairly in order to keep CO2 levels at below 450 parts per million and temperature increases below 2’C. This would mean that globally we will have to reduce our CO2 emissions by at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. But in reality last year a record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon was created by the burning of fossil fuels, which is 40% higher than 1990 levels according to the IEA.
Because of this budget only about a third of economically recoverable oil, gas and coal reserves can be burned, an amount of fossil fuel that would be burned by 2029 if consumption remains at today’s levels. However, in clear denial of the gravity of this situation over $400 billion is still being used to subsidize the use of fossil fuel in comparison to $57 billion for renewable energy.
Developing countries contribute only 1/5 emissions
You will also have to consider that developed countries have already benefitted substantially from fossil fuels, and through doing so have contributed significantly to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Developing countries on the other hand, with 80% of the world’s population, have contributed only 1/5 of historic global emissions according to the Global Carbon Project. However, developing countries, especially the BRICS group, are playing a more significant role through increased emissions. A lot of those increased emissions, however, are being used to create goods for the developed world. Nonetheless, despite the difference in historic emissions climate change is a global problem and requires international cooperation especially from the developed and rapidly developing countries.
Given this need for global cooperation you will need to survey the global political scene to see what the possibilities are to create a response that will allow us to stay within our budget. Of course as an impartial climator I am assuming you will want to share the budget fairly among the global community now and into the future… that is where things start to get tricky.
India, China and the USA, in order to protect their own carbon-laden interests, are among just some of the countries bringing global negotiations to a deadlock as they do not want to adopt legally binding emissions reductions. The European Union has somewhat valiantly declared their willingness to implement emissions reductions, but even that depends on USA China and India, for alone there actions won’t be enough as any meaningful agreement cannot be made without the cooperation of the USA (at 20.1 tonnes per capita), and China and India (with 6.1 and 1.5 tonnes respectively and growing). Together their emissions are too significant to leave out of a global deal.
Developed world pushing for a delay
Because of this deadlock and many other stumbling blocks encountered during global negotiations, much of the developed world is now pushing for a delay in securing a new globally binding agreement until as late as 2020. The current legally binding emissions treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, expires next year and is by any means insufficient to stay within our carbon budget. So it seems we are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
It is clear that if we are to avoid what Stephen Gardiner refers to as an “intergenerational arms race” – whereby humanity races to the bottom as each successive generation depletes the earth’s resources and worsens the conditions for human existence and the ecosystems on which we rely – that we need to take our 2’C target seriously. The IEA has noted that “delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent to compensate for the increased emissions.” So what is a benevolent climator to do? We need to act fast and act now, but how?
From my (hopefully impartial) perspective as a hypothetical climator, my first prize would be a legally binding global emissions reduction treaty, but one more ambitious than the Kyoto Protocol, which apportions out carbon allowances only as much as the carbon budget will allow, and does so according to the principle that each person counts equally, and is thus deserving of a similar carbon allowance. This, however, given the deadlocks and disagreements in global negotiations, is remotely possible but unlikely to happen at Durban. Bearing this in mind it is important to realize that, if a binding treaty does not happen in Durban, much journalistic sensationalism will likely decry such an outcome as the failure and end of global negotiations, which is a dangerously simplistic view to take.
The longer we delay the harder things become
That is not to say that we can afford to delay much longer, for the longer we delay the harder things become. Rather we need to focus on the fact that the UNFCCC is a process and that we need to work on locking various different pieces of the process into place in order to facilitate a global political terrain that is amenable to eventually securing first prize. So here are a few pieces of the process, which are critically important in my opinion.
Securing yet another road map to a binding international emissions agreement is of high priority should Durban fail to produce such an agreement. According to Faith Biriol, the chief economist of the IEA, if we do not do so by 2017 we will have effectively shut off the door to holding off temperatures below 2 degrees. The longer we wait, of course, the smaller the gap we have within which to do so. Thus a revised road map in the case of failure is of utmost importance. We need to of course bear in mind that maps are there to be followed and unless we do so we will not get to our destination. In the mean time we would need to ensure meaningful commitments from as many countries as possible. This will require the pressure, cooperation and insistence of the global community (and not just the global elite) in a way never before seen, except to a smaller extent during Apartheid, as Desmond Tutu aptly points out.
The next important piece of the process to watch is the Green Fund Climate Fund, designed to finance adaptation and low-carbon development, and chaired by South Africa’s very own Trevor Manuel. The fund currently stands as somewhat of an empty shell despite promises of $100 billion per year from the developed world. Progress on filling out the fund would go a long way to addressing issues of global injustice as well as securing a low carbon future. Putting impartiality aside, as an African and a member of the global South, this is incredibly important in securing both climate and broader justice.
Much is owed to us
Much is owed to us after all, given the injustices of the past, and considering we are responsible for a small percentage of emissions but will be more vulnerable to their effects.As a South African, however, our situation is quite different, as my next blog will explore). Redirecting over $400 billion that is being spent annually on fossil fuel subsidies might be a good start for a source of finance. Far from subsidizing fossil fuels, I suggest we need to work on internalizing the costs of their emissions and using the funds to tackle the problems they cause. To quote an inspiring article by Naomi Klein:
The only way to finance a meaningful response to the ecological crisis is to go where the money is. That means taxing carbon, as well as financial speculation. It means increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, cutting bloated military budgets and eliminating absurd subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. And governments will have to coordinate their responses so that [polluting] corporations will have nowhere to hide
A similarly heated and important issue to follow is technology transfer and intellectual property. These are just some of the issues, however, with many others such as REDD+, education, capacity building, LULUCF and others playing a prominent role and important role in the global climate picture. To find out more about the complexities of the negotiations visit the UK Youth Climate Coalition training here.
In closing, while it may certainly be interesting to think as a hypothetical climator, I would not envy anyone faced with a job anywhere close to a real climator. The road to a meaningful climate agreement is rough and heavily divided. Far from a place of measured impartiality, global negotiations are filled with diplomatically veiled and self-serving interests; much needs to be done in order to ensure the injustices of the past are not forgotten, but with such an unsure and unstable future this is becoming increasingly difficult. There are a lot of positives we can turn to in order to boost our morale, but it’s not clear that there is enough. One thing that is certain: we have an interesting road ahead.
By Alex Lenferna
Alex Lenferna is the lead tracker of the South African Government during COP17 under Adopt A Negotiator, as well as chairperson of the South East African Climate Consortium Student Forum.