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Cochabamba and the road to Cancun

Anna White
03 May 2010

After the failure of the Copenhagen talks, the world's social movements united in Cochabamba to establish a radical agreement that calls on governments to combine meaningful emission cuts with a wholesale transformation of the global economy, writes Anna White.

In an unprecedented demonstration of global public opinion, over 30,000 people gathered in Bolivia over four days in April for the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. Convened in Cochabamba by Bolivian President Evo Morales in response to the failure of December's Copenhagen summit, he extended an invitation to "social movements and Mother Earth's defenders... scientists, academics, lawyers and governments" to directly participate in formulating an alternative climate strategy. "The only way to get climate negotiations back on track", reasoned Bolivia's UN ambassador, Pablo Solón Romero, "is to put civil society back in the process."

Progressive commentators have clearly documented a number of problems with the Copenhagen negotiation process. Formulated behind closed doors, with no input from civil society or countries most affected by global warming, the outcome was not so much an accord but, as eco-activist Jason Negrón-Gonzales declared, "a threat made by a bully". When Bolivia and Ecuador refused to add their signatures to the Copenhagen Accord, the US government cancelled $3 million and $2.5 million in climate aid to each country respectively.

Although some environmentalists deemed Copenhagen a ‘step in the right direction', it is widely acknowledged that the process of voluntary pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been dangerously ineffective. Despite non-binding international commitments, carbon emissions have accelerated globally by more than three percent a year since 2000. Even if the official Copenhagen target of limiting the average global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius is reached, there will remain a 50 percent chance of irreversible damage to climactic stability, with many parts of the world becoming inhabitable. With such feeble targets, analysts estimate that pledges made under the Copenhagen Accord will lead to temperature increases of between three and four degrees Celsius - a level widely considered disastrous for the world's ecosystems and humanity itself.

For the world's poorest countries, those expected to suffer the worst consequences of global warming, a fifty-fifty chance of mitigation is not good enough. In stark contrast, the People's Agreement or ‘Cochabamba Accord', released on the closing day of the Cochabamba conference, calls on developed nations to limit the average global temperature rise to a maximum of one degree Celsius. This would require a commitment to emissions reductions of at least fifty percent based on 1990 levels - far higher than existing pledges.  

While these more ambitious targets are crucial, it is the agreed strategy for how to reach them that is of particular importance. Arising out of a movement that sees climate justice as the only effective and fair way to tackle global warming, the People's Agreement contains a number of interrelated elements. Concrete proposals include the call for a Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights and an International Climate and Environment Justice Tribunal. These mechanisms provide a legal framework for restoring the balance between human beings and nature, as well as recognising the historical debt owed by developed countries - the main contributors to the climate crisis - to the countries of the Global South.

Woven through the various proposals in the Agreement is the core message of the global climate movement - that addressing the ecological crisis requires more than targets and tinkering with the status quo; it requires an entirely new economic system based on an alternative ethos for how humankind interact with each other and the planet. While official negotiations remain ideologically shackled to the notion that market mechanisms offer the only realistic means of addressing global warming, the Cochabamba Accord reflects the growing view that the market-obsessed system is the structural cause of climate change, and thus cannot offer a viable solution. Informed by the indigenous Andean concept of vivir bien (‘living well'), the Cochabamba Accord calls for an alternative development model that prioritises "collective well-being and the satisfaction of the basic necessities of all."

President Morales has promised to table the People's Agreement at the Cancun climate summit in December this year. However, discussions at Cancun depend on what official negotiators agree on during a number of meetings over the next eight months. With a strong ongoing mobilisation by both civil society and progressive governments, it is imperative that the radical new approach mapped out by the Cochabamba Accord influences the direction these negotiations take.

Beyond affecting international climate talks, the conference in Cochabamba has the potential to inform a wider public awareness of the structural causes of the climate crisis and the wholesale change required in the global economy. The indigenous notion of vivir bien (‘living well') as an alternative to the consumerist drive to vivir mejor (‘live better') provides a simple distinction between meeting basic needs sustainably rather than endlessly amassing goods at the expense of the environment.

The gathering in Cochabamba vividly demonstrates an understanding of the causes and solutions to global warming far beyond those acknowledged during the Copenhagen conference. Perhaps most importantly, the People's Agreement represents the willingness of the global public and progressive governments to support the difficult decisions that must be taken if we are serious about creating a sustainable future.

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