February 01, 2012

The outcome of the UN Climate Conference, Durban 2011

A Milestone or A Tombstone?

While governments and participants assessed the outcomes of the recent UN Climate Conference, participants held widely disparate views about whether this Durban event marked a modestly hopeful path toward averting climate disaster and the future sustainability for planet Earth.

What was gained? What was lost? What can the citizens of the world expect in the near term and what is the challenge for Mercy?

Sr. Aine O’Connor, RSM, (Interim Coordinator of Mercy Global Action at the UN) and Sr. Immaculata Devine, RSM, (Sisters of Mercy, South Africa), who attended the first week of the talks highlight impressions of Durban and outline the resulting climate justice work that lies ahead for Mercy International Association, especially as the world prepares for the June 2012 UN Sustainable Development Conference in Rio.


Leaders and governments heralded the outcome as “a milestone achievement.” However, many others, including numerous non-governmental agencies and faith-based organizations, concluded that the Durban outcome was “too careful, too weak to stave off a crisis.” The Guardian environmental editor Damian Carrington’s headline on December 12, 2011 read: “Climate deal: A Guarantee that our children will be worse off than us.”

After fourteen days of UN Climate talks, world governments finally agreed on a Durban Platform of Enhanced Action on December 11, 2011. It looks like this:

  • Developing and developed countries agreed to enter into a 2020 legal framework to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The European Union agreed to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, while other major developed countries opted out.
  • The governing structure for the Green Climate Fund was agreed upon, but funding sources for the promised $100 billion a year, were not secured.

Additionally, the specter of climate market mechanisms was alive and well in Durban. Developed countries, especially the U.S., continued their fossil fuel, market driven conversations at the talks. Countries and corporations continued to insist, despite evidence to the contrary, that emissions reductions and climate finance could be secured through various carbon trading or sequestration schemes. This significant issue of market mechanisms will be addressed in a future article here.

While outcomes and implications of the Durban Climate Conference continue to evolve, the following observations can help to shape direction for Mercy Action.

A New Legally Binding Global Emissions Treaty in 2020

Through the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, developed and developing countries agreed to draw up new global greenhouse gas emissions targets and to enter into a new legally binding treaty by 2015. Once signed, countries will ratify the agreement and be legally bound to fully implement the targeted reductions by 2020.

Prior to this global emissions agreement, only developed countries, excluding the USA, were legally bound to reduce emissions under the Kyoto Protocol; developing countries and the USA could voluntarily commit to emissions reductions.

The Reality is: 2020 is too late to avert climate calamity

Unfortunately in this new 2020 global emissions agreement, world governments have dismissed the compelling scientific evidence that demands action now to dramatically lower current emissions rates, to close down the current fossil fuel infrastructures, and to turn fully to renewable energy sources.

The major criticism of Durban’s new global emissions agreement is that it fails to mandate an equitable, legal, and ambitious reduction in global emissions before 2020. “Delaying real action till 2020 is a crime of global proportions,” said Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International.

A recent UN report confirms that, without significant commitment and action in shifting how nations produce and use energy, global warming will continue to increase and result in shortages of food and water, disappearing islands, and growing extinction of species and plant life by 2020.

Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency acknowledges to Fiona Harvey of The Guardian: “If we do not have an international agreement, whose effect is put in place by 2017, then the door to [holding temperatures at 2 degrees of warming] will be closed forever.”

The Future of the Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol- the only legally binding agreement that mandates developing countries to reduce emissions, is up for renewal of its second commitment period that begins in December 2012. The EU, Norway and Switzerland have agreed to enter into a second commitment on the Kyoto protocol; however, Canada formally withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, and Japan and Russia will not take on any new commitments. Australia and New Zealand remain undecided and from the establishment of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the U.S. refused to ratify it and to bind itself to the agreements on emissions reductions.

The Reality is: Some major countries have opted out

Given the exodus, and non-ratification, of major nations, many consider that the Kyoto Protocol no longer holds much power. These major countries can now decide to decrease, postpone, or even increase their emissions. Led by the U.S., the lack of political will to dramatically reduce emissions during the next 5-7 years will almost certainly prove disastrous for the ability to address climate change.

Even more ominous is the impact on developing countries. Many argue that the burden of solving climate change through emissions reductions has now been pushed onto those with fewer resources to respond. Moreover, in this new 2020 global emissions agreement, critics challenge that the largest polluters – the developed countries – hold the highest responsibility for reducing emissions.

John Vidal and Fiona Harvey in The Guardian cite Martin Khor of the intergovernmental South Center in Geneva, noting that “poor countries would be obliged to cut emissions proportionally more than the rich. It’s like the starving will be made to give up half their small amount of food but the rich just a bit.”

Ethicist Donald Brown of Penn State University noted that, “most nations continued to act as if they have no obligations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to do their fair share of safe global emission, that the positions they have been taking on most major climate issues fail any reasonable minimal ethical test, that an acknowledgement that nations not only have interests but duties and responsibilities continue to be the key missing element in the negotiations.”

A Governing Structure for the Green Climate Fund (GCF)

The Green Climate Fund (GCF), which is tasked with providing and distributing climate change mitigation and adaption funds to developing countries, will now be restructured to have equal representation of developed and developing countries at its decision making table.

A December 2011 report by the UN Independent Expert on Foreign Debt and Human Rights, Cephas Lumina, cautioned Durban delegates that climate finance should not add to the external debt burden of poor recipient countries. Instead, climate finance should come in the form of grants and not loans to already indebted countries and that funding decisions should not be influenced by the World Bank and the International Financial Institutions debt sustainability history.

Although considered a top priority of the GCF talks, long term climate finance funding was not secured in Durban. This failure is likely to have untold negative consequences for developing countries who desperately seek to mitigate and adapt to climate change now, not in 2020. Kate Horner of Friends of Earth criticized the U.S. in particular for distracting the funding conversations away from talks on creative solutions to climate finance: “The U.S. has played an entirely damaging role here in the talks and over the last year. One of the things that the U.S. was successful in doing was advancing the role of the private sector in the GCF. And many developing countries were strongly resistant of the role of the private sector, because it would possibly mirror the experience of existing international financing at, for example, the World Bank, where more than 60 percent of the financing goes to multinational corporations in rich countries and not the entrepreneurial class in poor countries.”

The ongoing GCF talks and decisions about funding will require careful and critical monitoring during the coming months.

Next Steps/ MIA Challenge/Mercy Response

“The poor need help today, not next week.”

If ever Catherine’s spirit and words were imperatives for Mercy action, the Durban climate conference confirmed her passion for practical and pragmatic action.

The Secretary General of ACT Alliance agreed when he lamented that “while the governments are relieved the climate summit in Durban delivered at least some sort of agreement, the poor and vulnerable will weep at it content. The agreement is too careful and vague to stave off the worst impacts of climate change in sufficient time.” The Director of Campaigns and Advocacy for Oxfam, Celine Charveriat, summarized the Durban outcome in paraphrase: “Negotiators have sent a clear message to the world’s hungry: ‘Let them eat carbon.’”

In summary, where do we go from here?

As a Mercy community, the Durban outcome impels us to international action:

  • MIA will work with Mercy Global Network coordinators to scale up national climate change lobbying efforts. National climate change advocacy is critical to any successful attempts to combat climate change disaster and ruin.
  • International lobbying efforts at the UN will link strategically to national efforts.
    MIA will encourage its members to support key popular movements to lobby governments to act responsibly, urgently, and globally to address climate change and its causes.

In addition, the MIA office will continue to:

prepare for the Rio+20 UN Sustainable Development Conference in June 2012, focusing its advocacy on:

  • advancing the moral imperative to address climate change globally;
  • securing ambitious, fair and urgent global emissions reductions; and,
  • critiquing the false solutions being offered to combat climate change and support alternatives to promote low carbon intensity growth.
    pursue issues related to water security, food sovereignty, investment in agroecology, and small farmers
  • highlight barriers to sustainable development, such as extractive industry abuses
  • promote discussions on the rights of nature
  • explore in future E-News articles the underlying causes of climate change and how they are impacting the most vulnerable, as well as report on preparations for Rio+20

Messages to Aine O’Connor, RSM at mgc@mercinternational.ie and Sr. Immaculata Devine, RSM at Justmercy@polka.ca.za

For more information, these websites and resources are available:

UN Climate Change and Sustainable Development
UN Climate Change Secretariat at www.unfccc.int
RIO +20 website at www.uncsd2012.org
Amy Goodman interviews in Durban with Martin Khor, Kate Horner, and Nnimmo Bassey at www.democracynow.org
Environment News at The Guardian London at www.guardian.co.uk/environment
Climate Justice
Mary Robinson Climate Justice Foundation at www.mrfcj.org
Christian Aid on Global Poverty at www.christianaid.org.uk
Climate Ethics and the Disinformation Campaign
Donald Brown, Climate Ethics at rockblogs.psu.edu/climate
Systems Change not Climate Change at http:// systemchange.ca
The Rights of Nature Website at therightsofnature.org/
The Global Exchange at www.globalexchange.org/communityrights/campaigns/rightsofnature
The Peoples Movement for Mother Earth at pwccc.wordpress.com/support
Climate Policy Institutes
Earth Policy Institute at www.earth-policy.org/
Transnational Institute at www.tni.org
Catholic Social Teaching and Climate Policy
Center for Concern at www.coc.org
Faith, Economy, Ecology,Transformation at faitheconomyecology.wordpress.com/
Water, Fracking, and Tar Sands Pipeline
Council of Canadians on Water at www.canadians.org/about/index.html
Council of Canadians Rio +20 webpage at canadians.org/water/issues/rio20/index.html
Blue Planet Organization: www. blueplanetproject.net
Food Sovereignty at www.grain.org
La Via Campesina - Peasant Organization at www.viacampesina.org
Food and Water Watch at foodandwaterwatch.org
Oakland Institute at www.oaklandinstitute.org
Land grabbing at www. farmlandgrab.org
GRAINat www.grain.org

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