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The climate deal sham: only sharing can break the deadlock

Adam Parsons
17 December 2012

The recent climate talks in Doha were held as if in an alternative reality to distressing developments across the world. But there still remains hope and optimism because there is no possibility of preventing runaway climate change without global sharing and justice.

The latest round of climate negotiations in Doha once again demonstrated the sheer lack of cooperation, goodwill and willingness - or ability - of the world's governments to share responsibility for tackling climate change. Since the epochal failure to reach a global deal at Copenhagen in 2009, less and less attention is paid by the media and the general public to these byzantine and shadowy UN climate talks. After three years of further wrangling by governments with little to show, it required serious scrutiny from ordinary citizens to determine what was actually being agreed upon at COP18. Was it merely an agreement to make an agreement in 2015? An agreement based on emissions cuts and pledges for funding that will remain inadequate and far too late to deal with the climate chaos that is already upon us? And one that won't come into effect, in any case, until 2020? 

As usual there was no shortage of analysis pointing out the growing gap between evidence of global warming and action to tackle its causes and consequences. Dozens more reports were published that highlighted the dangers of sustained inaction, not least UNEP's Emissions Gap report that argued it will be impossible to cap global warming at 2 degrees Celsius if present trends continue - thus making it unfeasible to wait until 2020 to begin stringent emissions reductions. There was were even dire predictions about future climate breakdown from within the corridors of power, not least from the International Energy Agency, the CIA, a multinational business consultancy (PwC), and - with the worst prognostications of all - the World Bank.

These alarm bells from the establishment were accompanied by first-hand evidence of an already climate damaged planet, with 2012 marked by extreme weather events and climatic disasters across large parts of the world. This included the flash melting of Greenland's surface ice; historic droughts in Russia, Australia and the US; dramatic flooding in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Thailand and China; and of course the recent devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, as well as Typhoon Bopha that fatefully struck the Philippines as COP18 delegates were in mid-negotiation. Just as the climate talks got underway, the Global Climate Risk Index revealed that many of the worst natural disasters of last year were also the most severe ever experienced by those countries affected. Less developed countries remain generally more affected than industrialised nations, the Index reported, while the overwhelming majority of disaster-related deaths are in the developing world. 

No deal to save our planet

Yet the climate talks were held as if in an alternative reality to these distressing developments across the world. Poor countries may well have won historic recognition for the losses and damage they face from climate change, but the US made sure that there would be no rights to compensation and no legal liability involved, and there is no agreement on where the money will come from or how it will be dispersed. Promises on finance to help developing countries adapt to and mitigate climate change have already been broken, despite the pledge for $30bn by 2012 being a paltry sum compared to urgent needs in the world's poorest regions. No concrete sums of money were promised for 2013-20, no commitments were made to boost the Green Climate Fund, and nothing at all was pledged from rich countries in terms of technology transfer.

On emissions cuts, civil society leaders widely decried a weakened deal that will do nothing to stop global carbon emissions from continuing to rise indefinitely. The Kyoto Protocol has been extended until 2020, but now only includes the EU and a handful of other industrialised nations that together represent just 15% of world greenhouse gas emissions. The US never ratified Kyoto; several countries including Canada and Japan have reneged on their obligations under the treaty and shamelessly pulled out; and major developing country polluters like China and India remain excluded from the agreement. And of course the new carbon-cutting targets in the second commitment period of the Protocol are nowhere near what the science is calling for. The EU's pledge of reducing emissions by 20% compared to 1990 levels, for example, will in reality be only 12% owing to their 8% emissions reduction during the first Kyoto Protocol period.

In sum, current commitments and ‘voluntary' pledges remain at least 40% short of what the planet needs to avoid 4 degrees or more of warming (compared to pre-industrial temperatures); there is no sound basis for an "ambitious" and "equitable" global climate deal to be agreed by 2015, as promised by governments at Durban last year; and humanity remains on course for a ‘4°C warmer world' of catastrophic climate change and environmental breakdown - as vividly pictured for everyone in the 84-page report courtesy of the World Bank.

Battling the ‘dirty fuel' lobby

The only winners from the latest round of climate talks are the fossil fuel companies and business interests that are given a green light to continue profiting from the climate crisis. There are billions of dollars to be made by investing in carbon trading schemes and other market-based innovations that campaigners call ‘false solutions', which includes carbon offsets and biodiversity offsets, payments for environmental services, and various financial mechanisms proposed to reduce deforestation and degradation in developing countries (all schemes that were introduced as part of the Kyoto Protocol negotiations).

Meanwhile, as the Arctic sea ice drops to its lowest level ever recorded, companies are rushing to exploit new oil and gas reserves with the full backing of governments. Rather than heed the IEA's trenchant warning that two-thirds of the world's proven fossil fuel reserves cannot be used without risking dangerous climate change and should be left in the ground, governments and international agencies continue to subsidise ‘dirty fuels' at record-breaking levels and prolong the shift to renewable alternatives. The US in particular is busy celebrating its new status as the imminent world leader in fossil-fuel output, thanks to its massive exploitation of highly polluting energy resources like shale gas and Canadian tar sands. Outside the bubble of UN climate negotiations, there is no indication that the world's most powerful nations are heeding the IEA's prediction that their continued increases in fossil fuel consumption will result in a long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Celsius. (Again, cue the dystopia envisioned by the World Bank's ‘4°C warmer world' report).

These were the clear economic interests behind the brinkmanship and deadlock during the Doha climate negotiations, which many observers pointed out were akin to the world trade talks made famous by the same city - and now entering their 20th year of stalemate and failure. It was also widely pointed out how inappropriate it was to choose the immensely oil-rich Gulf emirate of Doha as a host country for talks on halting global pollution, not least considering it is the largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Indeed, the president of the UN summit was no less than Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, the Qatari deputy prime minister and former president of Opec, who was spotted shortly before the summit at the ‘Oil & Money 2012' conference in London where he extolled the virtues of hydrofracking and other new fossil fuel extraction technologies. Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists said that the resulting two-week summit was more like a trade fair than a science-driven or environmental discussion, in which "you saw on display the power of these industries and their short term profit motivation to dominate the governments of the world".

The climate talks stalemate

How then is it possible to reach a multilateral agreement on limits to carbon emissions when fossil fuel corporations are already preparing to burn more fossil fuels than the planet can absorb without becoming unliveable? When the political leadership worldwide is addicted to fossil fuels and works on behalf of short-term business interests? When policymakers are committed only to increasing economic growth through ever-expanding global trade, and are not even interested in the wholesale reorganisation of the world economy that is needed to curb excessive consumption, transition to a low-carbon development trajectory, and ensure that all countries can live sustainably within ecological limits?

The only common sense that is heard during the endless discussions on a post-Kyoto treaty comes from the beleaguered delegates of the world's poorest nations - those worst affected by and least to blame for climate change - or else from among the voices of civil society activists who are carefully monitored on the side-lines by state police. It is not in the main conference hall that the root of the climate talks stalemate is rationally discussed, but in the side events and civil society forums that receive scant media attention during the negotiations. Here, global cooperation and shared sacrifice is understood as impossible to achieve so long as governments prize, above all things, international competitiveness and trade liberalisation - regardless of the cavalier waste of resources and pillaging of the Earth that is necessary to achieve an ever higher percentage of economic growth.

Ever since the first Kyoto Protocol discussions began over 15 years ago, the same underlying conflict of interest has been reframed in any number of articles and reports: do we continue to prioritise the unrestrained extraction, transportation and consumption of the Earth's finite resources, or do we cooperatively manage the global economy to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and leave the planet intact for our children? The worsening state of the environment, extreme weather events and the consensus from scientists on increasing global warming underlines how both approaches are incompatible. Governments of both the North and South may wish otherwise as they continue to compete and haggle over how much of the Earth's ecological space they can occupy and exploit, but in the not-too-distant future there can be no negotiation with Mother Nature on her limits of endurance.

There still remains great hope amid all the naysaying, however, because there is no possibility of preventing runaway climate change without the implementation of global sharing and justice. To understand this bold statement in simple terms just requires an appreciation of how the principle of sharing is fundamental to the negotiations for a real and binding climate agreement. The enduring tension at the heart of climate talks is centred on how the ecological space of the world is shared between nations, with the US and other Northern countries not wanting to give up their unfair share of the world's atmospheric space and resources, while the emerging capitalist economies of the South claim their equal right to exploit the Earth's atmosphere and resources as they develop. Hence there is a considerable focus on equity in climate negotiations, which is a principle that is officially recognised in the UN Climate Convention.

Sharing the world's atmosphere

As Martin Khor of the South Centre has explained in several papers, the only way to fix a global emissions reduction goal is by having a framework for the equitable sharing of both the ‘atmospheric space' and the ‘development space'. In practical terms this requires an effective sharing of resources and responsibilities on an international basis, such as the sharing of mitigation efforts (with rich countries taking the lead owing to their historical debt of carbon emissions), the support that must accompany this sharing (climate finance and technology transfer), and the shared vision that is necessary for nations to agree upon a fair allocation of the remaining carbon space in the world (according to rights and responsibilities). Equity is "the gateway to environmental ambition", Khor reasons, and the sharing of climate change mitigation efforts is "a critical piece of the puzzle".

But an effective sharing of the world's atmospheric space could also have dramatic implications for the distribution of world resources. This is clear when we consider that climate change is an economic as much as an environmental issue, because emissions of carbon dioxide are obviously linked to economic growth. If the world's nations are to truly agree upon a fair sharing of the world's atmospheric space, it would ultimately mean that governments have to accept limits on their economic space or, in effect, on how much of the world's resources their nation consumes. And as we know, there are currently massive differences in the consumption patterns and carbon emissions of people living in rich and poor countries. A small proportion of the world's population - around 20% - currently consumes and wastes the vast majority of global resources. At the same time, the poorest 20% of the world's population still lacks the basic resources they need to survive.

Hence the challenge of tackling climate change is intertwined with the other great challenge of the 21st century: to end poverty and achieve more equilibrium in global consumption levels. How else can the world agree upon everyone's equal share to the atmosphere, unless we also agree upon everyone's right to a fair share of the world's resources? It's in this respect that global warming has the potential to become a ‘great equaliser', because the only way to find a solution to our environmental problems is through fundamentally rethinking the management of an economic system built upon endless consumption and competition over scarce resources. Or to put it another way, we cannot tackle climate change without simplifying our demands on the planet and learning how to share the produce of the earth more fairly.

This may be a simple framing of a highly complex issue, but it means there can be no real progress on agreeing a global climate deal until equity and justice is placed at the heart of negotiations, no matter how much developed nations and vested interests seek to undermine or ignore these basic principles. It is therefore essential that millions more people of goodwill around the world grasp the basic message of ‘climate justice' campaigners: that the struggle for human rights and the struggle to avert catastrophic climate change are two sides of the same coin. Because of course the real hope for change lies not in the corridors of power, but in the mass engagement of ordinary citizens around the twin crises of inequality and climate change. And as the charade of climate negotiations is making increasingly clear, the only way of addressing both of these crises is through sharing.