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Sunita Narain: Will Durban be any different?

Negotiations are stuck even as potentially catastrophic climate change-related events are spinning out of control

Sunita Narain  |  New Delhi 

It’s that time of the year again. Climate change talks are heating up, with the next conference of parties scheduled to meet in Durban in November. There is heat but no light. To put it simply: the negotiations are stuck even as dangerous and potentially catastrophic climate change-related extreme weather events are spinning out of control.

Not much is expected from Durban, except the usual shadow-boxing. The European Union (EU) 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 by roughly six per cent compared with 1990 levels over the period 2008-2012. The agreement is that rich countries, major historical and current emitters, would go first; their reductions would create ecological and economic space for the rest of the developing world to increase emissions. In time, the rest would follow. To advance action in the developing and emerging world, technology and funds would be committed.

All this would have led to a real deal. But it was not to be. The US and its allies walked out of the Kyoto Protocol and now even the EU wants to dump it. It finds that it cannot meet its commitment to reduce emissions domestically.

At Durban, once again the stage is set for a dud act.

So the EU will advocate climate action and the proposal for a legally-binding treaty will get predictable responses. The US, the world’s biggest renegade when it comes to climate and one that pulls the strings, will oppose this. Its objective is to do little at home and, more importantly, avoid being made responsible for taking action based on contribution to the problem. It wants the firewall between the past and present polluters to be removed. Most importantly, it wants no discussion on legal instrument — single or double. The other big polluting guns – Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Canada – will stand behind the US.

In the play, the script for the rest is also pre-cast. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which is rightfully angry about all talk and no action, will go with the EU-designed approach. It will see no choice but to back this proposal, even though it knows that the stalemate will only deepen. On the other hand, China and India will side with the US and join the deniers. They know too much is at stake — once they accept a single instrument, they will have to be one in taking on costly action, with no resources. The rest will wait for the game to be played out, with small differences.

So the die is not even cast. But the endgame is already known.

So what would change the outcome? I believe there is no other way but for the developing world to regroup and assume leadership. Our world is worst hit. We do not need to be preached about the pain of climate change. We know it.

This leadership will require standing behind tough demands, however inconvenient. It will mean demanding effective action: drastic emission-reduction targets in 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 — renewables in China, reduction of deforestation in Brazil, energy efficiency in India and so on. It can and will do more. However, the costs of the real transition – the expensive options to move towards low -carbon trajectories – must be paid for. It must make this clear. This planet-and people coalition of the willing must be firmly based on principles of climate justice and effective action.

This approach will be dismissed as unworkable. Unfortunately, the non-government groups following climate negotiations mirror the divide in the world. One half, followers of the US and its grouping, will say that this stance will jeopardise their democratic government and will bring back the dreaded Republicans. The other group, followers of the EU and its grouping, will say that this is not pragmatic. It is good in words but will not lead to effective action. In Durban they will want a deal — whatever it costs, however bad it is.

But their half positions will hide the truth that needs to be revealed: most of the low-hanging fruit – easy options to reduce emissions – have already been picked in this climate-threatened world. The transition to a low-carbon regime will cost. This fact cannot be more inconvenient at a time when the rich world faces double-digit recession, the euro zone is threatened, and people are worked up against austerity measures with all hell breaking loose over the world of finance.

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

First Published: Mon, October 24 2011. 00:26 IST