Durban: The Need-Expect Dichotomy

Five days ago the 17th Conference of Parties (COP17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was launched in Durban, South Africa. 19 years have gone past since the path-breaking United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro where the UNFCCC was created, and 17 years since its parties agreed upon the so-called Kyoto Protocol – a joint effort of developed countries particularly to tackle anthropogenic climate change. Next year the Kyoto Protocol is going to expire. So, it is worth-while to think about what needs to be done – and contrast that with what one can “reasonably” expect from the members of the international community gathered together in Durban these days.

Since 1994 when the Kyoto Protocol was signed, two developments have taken place parallel to each other. On the one hand, the scientific evidence that climate change is man-made and that it poses significant threats to humanity has grown rapidly. Today we know that we are the ones who should be able to prevent climate change from becoming a disaster (primarily by drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions induced by human activity). We also know that if we don’t, the long-term consequences are likely to be dire. More intense weather extremes, rising sea levels and the breakdown of ecosystems are only a few things expecting us if we do nothing (or not enough).

At the same time, the other development is the steady and rapid increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Not only are we approaching the last possible turning point – we are doing that at an increasingly fast pace.

So, what needs be done in Durban? First of all, there is a need for decision-makers worldwide to realize that we are heeding toward a catastrophe. We cannot ignore it any more (let alone deny it) – the longer we wait, the more difficult will it be to stabilize the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at a sustainable level, and the smaller will be the probability of success. The active recognition of this is the conditio sine qua non of all further considerations about how to tackle climate change.

Secondly, we must accept that is is too late for cheap solutions to suffice. Whatever the actual solution approach chosen – it is going to be costly. But we have to keep in mind that unchecked climate change is very likely to be far more costly than almost any imaginable solution – however inefficient the latter may be. Thus, attitudes like those of the US government – being ready to accept only an agreement making one’s country better off in the short term – are not only naive, they are terribly harmful, dangerous and – stupid.

Thirdly, since climate change is a global phenomenon, it has to be challenged globally. No-one can solve the problem domestically, although the Chinese leadership sometimes seem to believe the opposite. All solutions to climate change are global. And this leads to the much discussed, but highly controversial issue of climate justice. There are at least three parties involved in the bargain of how to share the burden of the climate change tackling effort. First, there are the developed countries with their high standard of living paid for with high historic cumulated emissions of greenhouse gases. Then there are the so-called emerging economies – notably China, Brazil, India and the host of COP17 South Africa – whose historic cumulated emissions are not as high, but whose current emissions feeding their rapid economic development (which has lifted millions of people out of poverty) are among the highest in the world. At last, there is the large group of developing countries whose emissions (both in absolute and in per capita terms) are low and whose populations are poor – and more vulnerable to climate change than any other. So while the poorest countries can only hope for the richer ones to commit to fighting climate change, this agreement must be found between the “Western” rich and the ever richer emerging countries, who nevertheless still suffer high levels of poverty. Whatever the exact deal, it is cleat that developed countries have to bear most of the burden – due to their historic responsibility and their financial and structural ability. But, at the same time, China, Brazil and others have to accept that it is in their own interest to cooperate. Otherwise their current accumulation of wealth is likely to be followed by a large drop a few decades from now.

While discussing burden-sharing, it is imperative not to forget about adaptation. Even if we were to stop all emissions now, climate system inertia will lead to some further changes in the middle run. To these changes humanity, especially vulnerable poor countries, must adapt. And they need help in doing that – in form of financial and technological support.

Fourthly, it is important to apply all feasible solutions that we have, and to beware one-size-fits-all approaches. Every region in the world has another potential – geographical, economic, climatic, social and cultural. Solutions must be sought that fit these regional preconditions best – e.g., it is reasonable to expect a more widespread use of solar energy in the tropics and, say, geothermal energy in Iceland. At the same time it is important to consider all proposed solutions – even though some of the more controversial ones (like geoengineering, nuclear fission, biofuels or CCS) may be decided to have net negative impacts. But such decisions must be taken after a reasoned consideration of factual arguments, not based on emotions or vested interests. It may even be that we are going to be forced to choose “between bad and worse”.

All this (and perhaps more) is required for a sensible, feasible and successful global post-Kyoto agreement on climate change. The sooner such an agreement is reached, the better for us and our descendants.

However, there is a problem I call here the need-expect dichotomy. While we need what I tried to outline above, I am afraid that we shouldn’t realistically expect it to actually happen. Not in Durban, most probably not in Rio next year or on any other COP in the near term. Apparently, the urgency of the problem has not been yet recognized by all. The acceptance of costly (in the short term) solutions is low across the world, although for different reasons. National, short-sighted interests seem to dominate any farther-reaching analysis, together with vested interests of powerful lobbies – especially in rich countries. The Durban conference is likely to be another Cancún – where no failure is a success.

And all the while the world is getting ever more out of balance.

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13 thoughts on “Durban: The Need-Expect Dichotomy

  1. With some interest I read about “goings on” in Durban. In general you have summarised problem facing to delegates and us, ordinary people. Today my interest has been somehow elevated by the news of a common front presented by the block of African nations. It is interesting how people who have not been able for 5 decades to sort out their own problems, improve lives of their own citizens, follow principle of democratic governance, and manage properly their economies admonish other countries about promises not met. And guess what? Of special interest to those representatives is a 100 bln per year fund promised by the developed countries. That explains a lot. Personally I do not have any faith in agreements reached in Durban.

    Regards,

  2. It may be indeed hypocratic that particular African leaders seem to expect that developed countries will solve all their problems. However, on the other hand, in this particular case their demands are generally right – even though they may come out from the wrong mouths.

  3. …but what you can do for the country? Not in this case. Greenhouse gas mitigation and, above all, adaptation to climate change consequences is not something a country can do on its own, in which most people live in deep poverty.

  4. “…adaptation to climate change consequences is not something a country can do on its own, in which most people live in deep poverty.”

    In a way yoou are right. However, small things add up to something big – “if everyone in Poland gave me 1 zloty I would have 40 mln”. That sort of thing.
    A food for thought. In the older parts of the city where Ilive you do not see houses as they are hidden in a sea of green. The new suburbs have just a see of red roofs.

    Regards,

  5. I just read about initiatives in Rwanda and Uganda that combine mitigation and development goals (unfortunately, it is available in German only). So you shouldn’t generalize.

  6. Possibly you are right. I do not have licence for the “truth”. But on the other hand just look at Uganda in terms of democracy, if that is also included in the “green” concept. It is easy to mitigate if a country is underdeveloped.

    Regards

  7. But on the other hand just look at Uganda in terms of democracy

    We are not talking about a “green concept”, but about tackling climate change. Although you are right that Uganda is not quite a prime example of a democratic country (I think their legislation against homosexuals is the best proof) – but one can, sadly, not cure all ills at one time.

    It is easy to mitigate if a country is underdeveloped.

    Yes and no. Yes, because the emission levels (especially when measured in per capita terms) are very low – mostly below the widely agreed threshold of “sustainable” 2t CO2 per capita per year. And no, because most of the emissions come either from deforestation or from biomass burning. Deforestation is the result of poverty – it provides the only viable source of income for many. Excessive biomass burning is another sign of poverty, furthermore it is harmful to human health in most cases. But to keep people from burning biomass one has to give them something instead – and example is the initiative in Uganda I mentioned where energy-efficient charcoal ovens are included in emissions trading schemes (via the CDM) and sold cheaply to poor households.

  8. “Deforestation is the result of poverty – it provides the only viable source of income for many. Excessive biomass burning is another sign of poverty”

    Yes, but this is the case of things which should have been attended to long time ago. On the “green concept” and “climate change” issues. Somehow they are interlinked. As far as I see it we will not be able to tackle climate change without tackling other issues – in fact that transpires very clearly from your writings. After 50 years of post colonial era we see “energy efficient charcoal ovens” which can be “included in emissions trading schemes” and “sold cheaply to poor housholds” as a symbol of extreme(?) achievement we should be proud of. Let us be serious. The cart is put in front of the horse. And what do we mean by “selling cheaply”? How on earth are we going to convince those people to spend money on a “cheap” oven when both money and food are at premium and a logical conclusion is to send women to collect some wood which is there, for free ( in monetary terms)? So somebody will come and fund the scheme and it will sort of work as long as the money flows in and is not wasted by corruption – nothing will change in the end.

    Regards,

  9. this is the case of things which should have been attended to long time ago.

    But they haven’t been, alas. It is not productive to complain about what should have been done. It is rather imperative to look forward – what can be done now.

    As far as I see it we will not be able to tackle climate change without tackling other issues

    Generally – yes. However, as long as we discuss the COP17 in Durban (I am not sure whether we still do), one should differentiate between the issues.

    How on earth are we going to convince those people to spend money on a “cheap” oven when both money and food are at premium and a logical conclusion is to send women to collect some wood which is there, for free ( in monetary terms)?

    This, indeed, is a good question. And I am afraid that I have no answer.

  10. I don’t have answers either. As far as I now from the news of this morning, China, India and the States are digging in and it looks that there will be no agreement.
    You have asked if we discuss the COP17. Yes, as all the things I have mentioned ( in fact you write about them yourself ) cannot be left unresolved ( the same applies to the technological aspects). This is possibly one of the the reasons why China and India are not prepared to be constrained and dependent on the good will of the developed countries.

    Regards,

  11. ““South Africa will become the first African country to phase out incandescent lamps following an integrated approach, including the development of collection and recycling systems.”
    “Beginning in January [next year], the country fully supports the 2016 global deadline for the phase out of inefficient lamps and will successfully complete [this] by 2016,” the department said.””

    This how it becomes surreal at the COP17. That commitment is made by the government which faces a lot of challenges much more serious than the issue of the light bulbs. Some people are not able to pay for electricity ( many of them are cut off to be reconnected illegally) so now will have to pay more for “efficient” bulbs. The same government at all levels shows a distinct inability to manage effectively water and electricity supply, sewage removal , maintenance of the roads, rail and health services. So now it will add “collection and recycling systems” for the “efficient” bulbs. I doubt it if the majority of the population which is poor will be even bothered to go to the collection points if somehow will be able to by the more expensive product. My bet is that sooner or later a black market will develop selling “inefficient” and cheap conventional light bulbs.

    Regards,

  12. it looks that there will be no agreement.

    Let’s be honest. It never looked like there would be an agreement. Some have hoped that in Durban some minor issues might be cleared (especially the fund to help developing countries financially) – but even this seems unlikely.

    That commitment is made by the government which faces a lot of challenges much more serious than the issue of the light bulbs.

    This certainly makes your argument for a holistic view of the problem even more sensible… In my opinion (which is not shared by everyone), the incandescent bulbs prohibition makes at least some sense – in the EU. In South Africa it is not much more than populism (if not hypocrisy) – here I agree with you.

    This is possibly one of the the reasons why China and India are not prepared to be constrained and dependent on the good will of the developed countries.

    I guess, there is no alternative. So, the question is: how long will it take for China, India, the US or Russia to recognize the fact that climate change is a problem, and that no country can solve it on its own. And the second question is whether it will not be too late then.

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