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Closing the ambition gap

"The heavy rainstorms that blocked view of the full moon over Durban gave way to sunrise as the delegates wended their weary way back from the final plenary this morning. A mere 24-hours earlier it had seemed most probable that COP-17 would be a total bust. Now, with the rays of the sun, came fresh rays of hope. There is no legally binding regime in place yet, but the resolve has been taken to create that, and to raise the global level of ambition."

“Let us draw a lesson from nature, which always works by short ways. When the fruit is ripe, it falls. When the fruit is dispatched, the leaf falls. The circuit of the waters is mere falling. The walking of man and all animals is a falling forward.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841

Connie Hedegaard, EU Head of Delegation, by Rogan Ward/ReutersConnie Hedegaard, EU Head of Delegation, by Rogan Ward/Reuters

By now no veteran delegate to the UN climate talks would be so foolish as to book a flight home before the first Monday afterwards, knowing that the reason these Conferences of the Parties (COPs) are always scheduled to end on Fridays is so that they can continue working through the weekend to salvage a last-minute deal and avert utter shame. Those veterans with the most experience — Christina Figueres (UNFCCC), Connie Hedegaard (EU) or Todd Stern (USA), for instance — begin, by the end of the second week, to physically resemble zombies, the walking dead. And well they should! They have only two raw cravings: to kick the can a little farther down the road, and for no-one to shoot them in the head.

Marcin Korolec had one of the toughest sleep deprivations. Only three weeks before COP-17 began, Poland ascended to the 6-month rotating presidency of the EU and he had gone from being named, in quick succession, Environmental Minister of Poland to being named EU Council Environmental Minister and a representative for the 27 member countries to the Durban climate talks. Some 90 per cent of Poland’s electricity is generated from coal. Being Environmental Minister of Poland was hard enough.

The EU Council is beset by a string of crises, to which Korolec will be flying back after Durban. While he was away an emergency EU meeting failed to summon more than a few weeks’ funding for failing banks, putting the Eurozone banking system at the edge of collapse. At the end of the 8-9 December EU summit in Brussels, only 17 of the 27 EU countries were ready to participate in a new fiscal compact. EU’s major lenders have themselves begun to run out of assets. Even bedrock German banks are now showing stark deterioration in their core capital ratios. Banks and sovereigns are having fire sales of assets, including gold, but even if they could raise €1 trillion of funding it would only meet the needs of averting Italian and Spanish defaults. After Italy and Spain, there are 25 more dominoes to fall. Is it any wonder that banks are using bailout money to buy credit default swaps against the sovereigns who are bailing them out?

Todd Stern, USA, with Chinese Head of Delegation, Xie Zhenhua, vice director of China's National Development and Reform CommissionTodd Stern, USA, with Chinese Head of Delegation, Xie Zhenhua, vice director of China's National Development and Reform Commission

The monster the Eurozone is dueling is the exponential function, which was driven up on cheap, abundant high-quality energy, and is now declining, just as those supplies are. Peak Money may have been hit in mid-2007. Total bank holdings worldwide are around 10 to 11 trillion, down from 31 trillion in that year. The lending power of banks is halving about every 3 years now.

The total face value of world money — including over-the-counter derivatives, like hedge funds and credit default swaps, is about $708 trillion. The U.S. has total debt and liabilities of over $116 trillion, although much is hidden, so these numbers are very sketchy. What we know of amounts to $1 million per taxpayer. Marked to market, guessing who will get haircuts and who will be paid, those claims are probably worth less than $20 trillion, or about $175,000 per taxpayer. Compared to the Eurozone, which will have to issue $16 trillion in bonds to bridge its current crisis, the US looks like a safe haven.

Familiarity with the exponential function served Korolec well in his COP-17 role. Consumption of fossil fuels and concentrations of greenhouse gases have tracked an exponential curve over the past 150 years. CO2 is responsible for 7 of the 33 degrees of the greenhouse effect that keeps Earth habitable for life. Burning half of all mined hydrocarbons caused a 40 percent increase in CO2 (from 280 ppm to 390 ppm). Burning the other half, drawn from inhospitable places like the tar sands, oil shales, deep water and Arctic basins would increase the temperature by well over 9°F, even without cascading tipping points like permafrost and methane clathrates. That’s well beyond a margin that could shelter most terrestrial life-forms, to say nothing of warm-blooded mammals such as ourselves.

While it is by no means certain that Korolec gets this yet, the connections between the collapse of the global financial system and the collapse of the global ecological system may dawn on him sooner than most. The tone in Durban was existential. The lack of ambition in the EU agenda was criticized by Bolivia, Venezuela and others in terms that resonated like a funeral dirge for humankind.

The bright spot in Durban was an array of fresh faces of youth, from all over the world, who, miraculously by the standards of most international governmental fora, were welcomed as full Civil Society participants with delegate badges and the opportunity to make a presentation at the meeting of ministers. It came as no surprise that in her address, Youth’s representative, Anjali Appadurai from Coquitlam, BC and The College of the Atlantic, brought the house down, not the least because when she finished a very moving and well-delivered speech to the assembled nations and was receiving a standing ovation, she called “Mic Check” and received a further standing reply from her colleagues and others so moved, in which she led chants of “We’re running out of time!” and “Get it done!”

Ironically, some things Ms. Appadurai said in her address showed in sharp relief the fault lines running through the talks and why no deal had yet been reached to steer the world away from its head-long lurch to oblivion. “Common but differentiated and historical responsibility are not up for debate,” she said.

Breaking that down from the UN-speak that infects such meetings, “common but differentiated” responsibility derives from the wording of the original Kyoto treaty, which effected a compromise between South and North, the developing versus industrially developed stakeholders.

Indian Delegate Jayanthi NatarajanIndian Delegate Jayanthi NatarajanFor the North, who had to own up to “historic responsibility” of purchasing century-long industrialization at the expense of the atmospheric commons (not to mention soil and mineral degradation, exhaustion of fossil fuels, ruinous destruction of habitat and biodiversity, and the socially devastating effects of capitalism and globalization), emissions reductions were a hair-shirt, worn to atone for their sins.

Under the Kyoto regime, each “developed” nation was prescribed a target percentage reduction of its greenhouse gas pollution based on its 1995 emissions level and its capacity to effect reductions. “Developing” nations were essentially given a pass. Since they were not responsible for the problem to begin with, they pleaded with the growth junkies at the UN that they required the methamphetamine-like injections of pure stuff – coal, gas and oil – to “catch up” with Europe and the USA in consumer culture and its spendthrift, glamorous lifestyles as seen on TV. Their “common but differentiated” burden would be a free pass to pollute. Instead of having targets of reducing their actual emissions, they would have targets based on percentages of what their emissions might one day become, were they as wasteful as say, the United States, Australia or Canada.

This nukespeak has developed its own set of code-words, like the atmospheric parking lot analogy, used so fondly by India. In the parking lot analogy, there are a fixed set of spaces in the sky for us to park smoke. India reckons we have 75% of the spaces taken and 25% remain. This is of course, utter nonsense, because if the atmospheric garage were not already oversmoked by 150 to 200%, we would not be losing so much ice in the Arctic and experiencing such extreme weather everywhere else. But, under India’s rationale, the question is who gets to use the last 25% and can we not agree to apportion that added pollution more fairly, such as by population size or GDP, for instance? In UN-speak, this is called “equity.”

The crippled Kyoto treaty, which is what Ms. Appadurai was so passionate about saving, would only reduce emissions by developed countries by 12-17% in a best-case scenario. Even under the rosiest scientific scenarios the world needs immediate 25 to 30% reductions and 80% by mid-century to have a chance to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming this century. That’s crucial because beyond 2 degrees we very likely would pass tipping points to 3 degrees and at 3 degrees pass more tipping points leading us to 4 degrees, and so on, all irreversible, all totally catastrophic. Kyoto, as it was structured with common but differentiated and historical responsibilities, gives a free pass to developing countries, including rapidly industrializing Brazil, South Africa, India and China (the BASIC group), to continue enlarging emissions, which, as we have seen in the past few years, quickly wipes out all gains in the developed world and jams yet more smoke into the crammed atmospheric parking lot, every year.

As the final days’ showdown approached, most observers said that Durban would be a bust. We were already labeling it the COP-out of COPs. The EU insisted on a legally binding treaty to follow a brief renewal of Kyoto — one that would bind both North and South to reductions. India and its allies insisted on including the “equity” issue; more passes to pollute. China was ready to concede it had become an industrial country, but it rightly pointed to all the other developed countries and asked, poignantly, which of them had done as much to go green in its development planning? Which of them had found as many new ways to reduce their own carbon footprints as China had?

Venezuela's Claudia Solerno stands on a table to be heardVenezuela's Claudia Solerno stands on a table to be heardFriday’s closing sessions gave way to an all-night session, which gave way to meetings throughout the day on Saturday. The South African airline announced it would add more flights on Sunday afternoon to accommodate rebookings, taking away the excuses of those who said they had to leave. As evening approached on Saturday, statements by delegates became more passionate. Claudia Salerno of Venezuela, one of the most eloquent speakers at the conference, stood on a table and waved at the chair to be heard. She spoke in defense of extending Kyoto.

For readers who did not follow our blow-by-blow posts from Copenhagen and Cancún, the background of this is that the United States under George W. Bush had wanted to get rid of Al Gore’s Kyoto climate treaty entirely and did whatever it could to subvert UN efforts to strengthen or extend it. In Copenhagen, President Obama succeeded where Bush had failed, getting COP-15 to sign off on a one-page voluntary pledge system in lieu of legally binding caps. Hillary Clinton had sweetened the deal a week earlier by going to Copenhagen with a promise of $100 billion in public and private money to promote “green” development in the two-thirds world. This bought off a lot of the opposition.

This is actually standard diplomatic procedure for the United States going back to at least the Second World War. Pay any price to get what you want. Money is not the problem.

Norway pointed out that Ethopia would develop without CO2Norway pointed out that Ethopia would develop without CO2In Cancún the extortion was formalized into the Green Climate Fund, to be initially managed by the Global Environmental Facility, an arm of the World Bank, which is very experienced at extorting whole countries, just ask Argentina. One of the tasks for Durban, which was never resolved but was kicked down the road, was how to fund the Green Climate Fund and who would succeed GEF as manager. In principle, the Fund is a great idea, because it takes away the rationale for “common but differentiated” passes to pollute. Ethiopia, for example, has said it will effect its development entirely without benefit of fossil fuels. Such a fund could pay for that to happen everywhere. The problem is that GEF is not perceived as a neutral manager, and what Ms. Solerno said seemed to confirm that.

Speaking with stern resolve, tinged with angry indignation, Ms. Solerno said that outside the plenary chamber, during a break, she had been threatened by someone who had told her she needed to abandon support of Kyoto or Venezuela would lose any access to the Green Climate Fund. She did not say who had made this threat, but she said, “Mr. Chairman, I will be heard. I am not less party than parties that are not parties to some issues.” The United States is not a party to the Kyoto Protocol, never having ratified the treaty.

“Mr .Chairman, we are a peaceful country but we do not like threats. We do not like threats from countries that have shown to the world that they are not ready to do anything or to anything else but give money. In the corridor I have received two threats. One, that if Venezuela does not adopt the text, they will not give us the second commitment period. Mr. Chairman, the second commitment period is not for Venezuela, it is for the world. It is to preserve and sustain the rule system. If they threaten me with this fake trade — that we need to actually adopt a weaker regime for the world — they are actually not threatening me, but the world.

“Secondly, and the most pathetic, and the most lowest threat, if we don’t give them their comfort zone, with no rules, flexible, in which they’re going to do whatever they want, when they want — to take us to four degrees — we are not going to have the Green Climate Fund….

“Mr. Chairman, the issue on your text is how do we see the future. My country has made all these efforts to resist this merchantilist vision that pretends to save us, putting a price on the most sacred, which is our future, and the future of our children, and the future of our world. And I believe that future as many think, some believe it costs $100 billion dollars. Here we are not selling Kyoto for $100 billion dollars. The fate of this world is not worth it. $100 billion dollars…. The ethical position and the integrity of the completely flooded Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is not going to be sold for $100 billion dollars. We need to stop this farce, this lack of shame by some delegates.”

In the evening, hoping to salvage some deal from the year-long negotiations, President of COP-17 Maite Nkoana-Mashabane convened an informal “listening session.” “It is your choice what history you want to make,” she said.

huddle in final Indabahuddle in final IndabaShe reminded delegates of the ways that the Zulu people came together in a spirit of Ubuntu, compromise for the betterment of the whole, in sessions called indaba, gatherings with the purpose of debating a matter of grave importance in an attempt to find common mind or a common story that all the participants can take home with them. After hours of statements from delegates, ranging from impassioned pleas from island countries to outrage over equity issues by India’s Jayanthi Natarajan, at 2:40 AM on Sunday, she asked for a 10-minute “huddle” to permit delegates who seemed the farthest apart to meet and attempt to resolve their differences. That huddle continued for close to an hour, but then, remarkably, it did produce results. India, which had vowed to block consensus, was persuaded to rejoin by a change of wording from “a legal outcome” to “an agreed outcome with legal force.” Venezuela was given both a renewal of the Kyoto Protocol and the Green Climate Fund. The US, hoping desperately to kick the can past the current election year, was saddled with a new framework that would eventually, by no later than 2020, bind both it and China to a common reduction regimen.

As she gaveled the COP to a close, Nkoana-Mashabane said “Climate change is the common problem which affects all of us and the Durban Platform is the story we will take home with us. Our intention with indaba was to restore trust in the multilateral system and to enshrine transparency and facility within our party-driven process. The decisions we have taken here are truly historical and include the following: amendments to the Kyoto Protocol, decisions on the LCA, the Green Climate Fund and the future of the climate change regime…. At the outset we asked you to show leadership in action and to think beyond your national position. You have clearly demonstrated your commitment and resolve to achieve the broad and balanced result that we can all be proud of…. We have once again saved tomorrow today.”

Whether tomorrow was really saved today or whether that was mere rhetorical flourish is a judgment we can leave to historians. Among the accomplishments however, was creation of a process to address the “ambition gap.” This is UN-speak for the willingness of the major polluters to take halfway measures — the United States is sticking to the 3% reduction goal by 2020 over 1990 levels Mr. Obama proposed in Copenhagen — while lacking the spine to raise ambitions higher. Lots of side events, meetings and studies have outlined abundant economic and social benefits waiting for those who devote the final hours of their dwindling fossil sunlight to making the transition to 100% renewables, but few outside China, Iceland and Denmark are really displaying any such ambition. The critique most heard of the Kyoto renewal was that it locked in this “ambition gap” for at least another 5 years.

So it was that the most remarkable document emerging from Durban was FCCC/CP/2011/l.10-GE.11-71657, Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.

The Conference of the Parties,

Recognizing that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires to be urgently addressed by all Parties, and acknowledging that the global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, with a view to accelerating the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions,

Noting with grave concern the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with having a likely chance of holding the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C or 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels,

Recognizing that fulfilling the ultimate objective of the Convention will require strengthening the multilateral, rules-based regime under the Convention,

***

Further decides that the process shall raise the level of ambition and shall be informed, inter alia, by the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the outcomes of the 2013–2015 review and the work of the subsidiary bodies;

Decides to launch a workplan on enhancing mitigation ambition to identify and to explore options for a range of actions that can close the ambition gap with a view to ensuring the highest possible mitigation efforts by all Parties;

Requests Parties and observer organizations to submit by 28 February 2012 their views on options and ways for further increasing the level of ambition and decides to hold an in-session workshop at the first negotiating session in 2012 to consider options and ways for increasing ambition and possible further actions.

The heavy rainstorms that blocked view of the full moon over Durban gave way to sunrise as the delegates wended their weary way back from the final plenary this morning. A mere 24-hours earlier it had seemed most probable that COP-17 would be a total bust. Whether the can could be kicked down the road for even another year was in considerable doubt, because with an impending failure of resolve, even the multilateral process itself was threatened. Now, with the rays of the sun, came fresh rays of hope. There is no legally binding regime in place yet, but the resolve has been taken to create that, and to raise the global level of ambition.

“The good news is we avoided a train wreck,” said Alden Meyer for Union of Concerned Scientists, who only a day earlier had been forecasting a likely failure. “The bad news is that we did very little here to affect the emissions curve.”

That is something for Marcin Korolec to think about on his flight back to Poland this afternoon. So far, the EU has been plagued with half-measures that lack the ambition of a debt jubilee, cap and share, local currencies backed by carbon credits, or even serious regulation of multinational vulture banksters that exploit vulnerabilities in the system to feather their own nests. Might it be possible to get all the stakeholders into an indaba, huddle up, and with the spirit of Ubuntu, raise the EU Council’s level of ambition?

Nelson Mandela once explained Ubuntu this way: “A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”

------ Remarks of Anjali Appadura, Youth Delegate ------

“I speak for more than half the world’s population. We are the silent majority. You’ve giving us a seat in this hall but our interests are not on the table. What is it take to get a stake in this game? Lobbies, corporate influence, money?

You’ve been negotiating all my life. In that time you failed to meet pledges, you’ve missed targets and you’ve broken promises. But you’ve heard this all before.

We’re in Africa, home to communities on the front line of climate change. The world’s poor’s countries need funding for adaptation NOW. The horn of Africa and those nearby in India needed it YESTERDAY. But as 2012 comes the green climate fund remains empty.

The International Energy Agency tells us we have five years until the window to avoid irreversible climate change closes. The science tells us that we have 5 years maximum. You’re saying: ‘give us ten’. We must stop betrayal of your generation’s responsibility to ours. It’s that you call this: ambition. Where is the courage in these rooms?

Now is not the time for incremental action. In the long run these will be seen as the defining moments of an era in which narrow self-interest prevailed over science, reason and common compassion.

There is real ambition in this room. But it’s being dismissed as radical, deemed not ‘politically possible’. Stand with Africa. Long-term thinking is not radical. What’s radical is to completely alter the planet climate to betray the future of my generation and to condemn millions to death by climate change. What’s radical is to write off the fact that change is within our reach.

2011 was the year in which the silent majority found their voice. The year when the bottom shook the top. 2011 was the year when the radical became reality. Common but differentiated and historical responsibility are not up for debate.

Respect the foundational principles of this convention. Respect the integral values of humanity. Respect the future of your descendants.

Mandela said: ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done’. So, distinguished delegates, and governments around the world, governments of the developed world: Deep cuts now!!

GET IT DONE!!

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