Ferrial Adam was struck by an overwhelming sense of déjà vu as she spoke to a group of Randfontein community workers this week about the dangerous impacts of climate change.
Adam, the climate change and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Africa, reflected on how she was a 20-year-old anti-apartheid activist when the perils of a warming world were predicted at the landmark Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
“We haven’t learnt from the Rio Earth Summit and that was 20 years ago,” she believes. “At the time of the summit we were told of the possibilities of climate change and the impacts that would happen to us in the next 15 years.
“These impacts are happening, but we haven’t moved significantly. Some people would like to believe we have moved, but we haven’t. We still have countries building coal-fired power stations and nuclear power plants.”
Together with around 20 000 delegates from nearly 200 countries, Adam will be attending the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which gets under way in Durban in the next two weeks, towards negotiating a new climate regime.
“Since the disaster of Copenhagen (COP15) we’ve been calling for a fair binding agreement to prevent catastrophic climate change and we’re still calling for that, but we know we’re not going to get that in Durban,” says Adam, who has attended the past two COPs.
“Cancun (COP16) was to rebuild trust at the negotiating table. But there is still no significant movement to deal with climate change. What was established in Cancun in terms of outcomes, we need more of that. Political pledges are not enough. We need ambitious targets so that we can hold countries accountable… Small steps will not get us there.”
Adam has spent part of this year locked in the numerous intercessionary meetings in the run-up to Durban. For the most part, says Adam, they have failed to address the crux of deadlocks, or what she describes as the “sticky issues”.
This means that the future of the Kyoto protocol, emissions reductions and long-term finance to help the poorest countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are left for Durban. “There’s an enormous amount of pressure on South Africa.”
In Durban, negotiators will principally seek to avert the death of the Kyoto protocol, an international climate agreement drawn up in the 1990s to cut dangerous greenhouse gas emissions.
Its first commitment period expires in December next year. The concern is that there will be no agreement to extend it into a second commitment period, or for Adam, a weak interim agreement that fails to have any clout. “We know that the government doesn’t want Kyoto to die here for political reasons,” says Adam.
When Kyoto was first enacted, it set binding targets – now outdated – for 39 developed countries to slash their overall greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels for the period 2008 to 2012, the so-called first commitment period.
In a recent interview, Environmental Affairs chief negotiator Alf Wills, told the Saturday Star: “The fundamental challenge of Durban is whether or not we’ll be able to preserve the Kyoto protocol. The fundamental reason we need to preserve it… is (that)… we’ve spent the past 20 years negotiating this set of international rules. That’s 20 years of negotiation you don’t want to lose. We have the opportunity to improve that system.
“Whether or not you then kind of cut and paste those rules from Kyoto into some kind of new instrument to replace Kyoto, that decision is some way down the track.”
Political declarations will result in a watered-down outcome in Durban, Adam believes. “We don’t want it to live on superficially and end up with no real ambition or targets. I don’t think we’re at a stage where we will agree on ambitious targets. We don’t want agreements with a bit of Kyoto worked in or without. That is not good enough.”
Japan, Canada and Russia have already signalled that they will not take on a second commitment period because China and the US – the globe’s top polluters – are not included in it.
The EU says it will sign up to a second period, but wants major developing economies, whose emissions are surging as their economies grow, to follow legal commitments.
“The island states and Africa are calling for all major emitters to be tied down by legally binding agreements while the major emitters, the EU and the US, are trying to hide behind each other to avoid becoming the big bad guy at COP17,” says Adam.
The result at the negotiating table? Deadlock. “We so often talk about the certain countries that are blocking. Well, is it not possible to go ahead without them? It would be nice to start those discussions in Durban,” she remarks.
But there is little time, whatever happens in Durban. The International Energy Agency has recently declared that there is just five years remaining to cut greenhouse gas emissions to avert “irreversible” climate change.
Paul Horsman, the campaign director for the Global Campaign for Climate Action, urges action in Durban. “Whatever is happening within the negotiations, the reality of climate change is stark and the failure of politics to deliver the necessary measures does not change the science that calls for urgent measures. Delay only makes the science worse,” he wrote recently in an article for the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
“We have already exceeded the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases that science considers the limit beyond which we will experience ‘dangerous climate change’ and the need for urgent action grows daily.”
The WWF agrees. As the effects of climate change worsen, surpassing “even the most conservative scientific estimates”, governments of the world will stand at a major crossroads in Durban, it says.
“Durban is the last real opportunity for countries to provide certainty on a future climate regime. COP17 will be the tipping point in the UN negotiation process on climate change.”
If negotiations continue on the same path that they have been on this year, COP17 is doomed to fail. “So far, countries have not used the positive momentum from the climate negotiations in Cancun to deliver a more ambitious outcome or fulfil even the most basic agreements made there. They have not yet secured a firm basis for a fair, balanced and credible outcome in Durban.”
It is concerned about the potential for breakdown in negotiations in Durban. “Their (leaders’) current approaches mean they may fail to reach a minimally acceptable agreement in Durban. Government leaders can either build on the progress achieved in Cancun and act to prevent runaway climate change, or they can allow short-term national interests to set us on a path towards a 3-4ºC warming world.”
Political economist Patrick Bond, who dubs COP17 “a veritable conference of polluters” believes failure is certain in Durban. “Binding emissions-cut commitments under the Kyoto protocol are impossible given Washington’s push for an alternate architecture that is also built upon sand,” he stated in a presentation earlier this year.
“The devil’s in the details over climate finance and technology, including an extension of private-sector profit-making opportunities at public expense, plus bizarre new technologies that threaten planetary safety.”
For Lindiwe Sibanda, the chief executive of the Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network, the only credible outcome of COP17 will be a deal that prioritises agriculture and promotes food security.
“COP17 is happening on African soil, and for most of Africa, if not all, agriculture is the backbone of the economy. I know of no developed country that has evolved without an agricultural sector.”
Agriculture should be elevated in the negotiations. “If there is no deal for agriculture, there is no deal for climate change. Our agriculture is dependent on climate… Climate change is just a scientific and fancy way to say we’re talking about an environment that is 1ºC warmer in the past 100 years. People know climate change because of the recurrent droughts, floods, the loss of productivity and declining yields.
“If we don’t get the prioritisation of agriculture as a stand-alone sector, there will be more Horn of Africa crisis. We will create a generation of hungry, malnourished, underdeveloped children, who will haunt us 30 years from now when they become leaders.”
This week the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, stated that climate change is increasing the risk of extreme weather events with more intense hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons, heavier rain and snowfall, more frequent and intense heatwaves, and longer droughts.
“These changes have increased the number and magnitude of disasters and food security thereby increasing humanitarian demand.”
In the past 100 years, the global average temperature has risen by 0.74ºC. The rate of temperature increase accelerated over the course of the 20th century. There have been 15 of the hottest years on record in the last 16 years.
Projections in temperature rise for the 21st century range from 2-4ºC, which would have catastrophic consequences – more floods, less food and altered ecosystems.
The Red Cross adds: “Growing numbers of people in the poorest countries will suffer from malnutrition and from diarrhoeal, cardio- respiratory and infectious diseases.
“Globally, up to 30 percent of species will be at increasing risk of extinction.”
In Durban, South Africa is pushing for an African position but the extent to which a fair outcome is achieved depends on the extent to which developed countries meet their legal obligations to provide financial, capacity-building, technology development and transfer support.
There is hope that movement will be made on the management of the UN Green Climate Fund, with developed countries pledging a $100 billion (R818.5bn) a year from 2020 to help developing nations prepare for climate change.
For now, though its coffers are empty because of the global financial crisis.
As one of the globe’s top 20 greenhouse gas emitters, South Africa has pledged to reduce the country’s emissions by 34 percent relative to its “business as usual” trajectory by 2020 and by 42 percent in 2025.
This level of effort will enable the country’s greenhouse gas emission to peak between 2020 and 2025, plateau for about a decade and reduce in absolute terms thereafter.
But Adam says more work needs to be done: “In Durban, we are calling on the government to put people before polluters.
“Climate change doesn’t allow us to take baby steps, we need to take strides,” she adds.