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Climate Change: Hesitation and Procrastination. Is this the path to future disasters ?

Desbois Dominique Print this article Print

The 16th United Nations Conference on Climate Change, held in Cancùn, ended on 10 December, 2010, with an almost unanimous agreement from the 192 participating countries, to establish, among other measures, a "Green Fund" to help developing countries finance their fight against climate change, mobilising 30 billion dollars by 2012 and 100 billion dollars per year from 2020. Bolivia alone refused to sign, and announced that it would bring the case to the International Court in the Hague, judging the sums to be insufficient.

At the front line of the struggle, the small island states and Africa (jointly abandoning their target of +1.5 degrees for a target of +2 degrees) will be the main beneficiaries of the "Green Fund", and should play a significant part in its management, which is temporarily entrusted to the World Bank…

A facade consensus for ambiguous progress

Should we jubilantly celebrate the outcome of the only multilateral process currently in a position to pass internationally binding laws in the struggle against Climate change?
The sectorial approach did reach decisions in the longest running negotiations: The REDD (1) programme to reduce harmful emissions from deforestion and the degradation of forests, which are responsible for up to 12% of greenhouse gases, has been extended. The aim of the accord is to half deforestation by 2020 and to stabilise the planet’s forest covering by 2030.
National action plans for reducing emissions reinforce the negotiating positions of individual nations in the implementation of their REDD strategies. It should be added, however, that the extensions of the REDD+ programme exacerbate the divergences between those who want to include REDD+ in the carbon market and those acting in the interest of biodiversity or defending their own interests. There are two opposing camps: Carbon lobbies, which champion market forces, against proponents of international tax, amongst whom can be found the Financier George Soros.
The sectoral compromises are considered insufficient when measured against the stakes, and are powerless to curb abuses: Bilateral agreements shift deforestation to acquire REDD credits with out worrying too much about the realities of carbon credit, thus leading to the risk of a speculative bubble on carbon credit which can only benefit traders.

The shadow of the Kyoto protocol

The Kyoto Protocol, the only accord constraining industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, cast a shadow over the Cancùn negotiations: The first period of commitment to reducing greenhouse gases began in 2008 and will end in 2012. The compromise offered two options for renewing the protocol. The first called for a commitment from developed countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions for the period 2008-2012 to 5.2% below 1990 levels. The second left room for negotiation.

In the absence of any political will from the two main greenhouse gas emitters, the USA and China, a second period of commitment, with neither targets nor a timeframe, empties the negotiations of their substance until the next annual conference, due to be held in Durban. The extension of this accord is in no way guaranteed. The defeat of the Democratic party in the mid-term elections on 2 November put an end to any hopes of passing a climate-energy law during the Obama Presidency, which would have enabled the USA to abandon its refusal join the protocol since its creation. China, on the other hand, has announced a 1.5 trillion dollar investment plan over the next five years, representing 5% of its GDP, aimed at strategic industries ranging from alternative energies to biotechnologies, to transform an economy based on producing manufactured goods from processes which rely heavily on fossil fuels. John Pershing, representing the US for Climate, stuck to a unilateral commitment to reduce emissions by 17% over 15 years ending in 2020. He criticized the compromise offered by the UN in Cancùn as "lacking in certain key points". He was referring to provisions for developing countries to limit increases in greenhouse gas emissions, China now having overtaken the US in greenhouse gas emissions…

Japan, which was one of the main advocates of the Protocol, has shifted from its original position, and announced its decision not to commit to a second period at the outset of the summit in Cancùn. Other supporters such as Mexico and Canada refused to re-commit in the absence of any constraints for developing countries like China and India. The European Commission on Climate warned against a lack of concrete results in Cancùn, but in an international context, how can emerging countries be convinced to make commitments which would harm their economic targets for development?
Will Connie Hedegaard follow the recommendations of the European Parliament’s Development Commission, which called for the establishment of a carbon tax with adjustments at the borders?
The developing countries, in particular the Alliance of small island States, supported by Venezuela and Bolivia, argue that the provisions in the compromise offered by the UN are insufficient to protect zones threatened by flooding, drought or desertification. The Via Campesina supporters chanted "The land and the forests are not for sale, they belong to the people", seeing the REDD as attempted land-grabbing .
The Bolivian and Mexican delegations called for more justice, both social and environmental, for indigenous peoples in particular, referring to the People’s Agreement against climate change, sealed in April 2000 at the alternative summit in Cochabamba.
NGOs demonstrated in scattered groups, illustrating the weakness of their coordination.
Africa, very present during official meetings, was unrepresented by the demonstration: There is still a long way to go for participative democracy on questions of the environment on the continent. In France, despite the work of the 4D association (2), alternative positions in favour of sustainable development remain marginalized in the public sphere, even if they are increasingly spreading via the internet.

The tutelary influence of information technology on sustainable development

The associative use of information technologies is weaving a "social network" which bypasses the stamp of the official media, and is bringing hope for innovative or re-examined practices capable questioning the dominant economic models. As an example, and to take just one example, a recent issue of the revue Pour was devoted to local agriculture in Île de France, reexamining the model of metropolises which devour space and agricultural production. The technological society, which is geared towards the industrial production of knowledge, has made information technology a major part of our human societies’ strategy to better control our environment, based on an unprecedented accumulation of factual data. It should be reminded that the scientific consensus reached by the IPCC (4) on the human origins of the climate crisis drew on a considerable mass of scientific work and technical data. The influence of the technological society is not limited to the sphere of the environment: The conception and evaluation of national economic and social policies are based on models built from processed information which has been gathered and analysed. The adoption of sustainable development indicators and an environmental accounting system by the public statistics system, observing the Stern report guidelines, is one essential step in the national sustainable development strategy 2010-2013 which came out of the "Grenelle de l’Environnement" talks.
There is a daily invasion of communication to the effect that life cycle analyses reveal an increasing pressure on the environment, with a direct impact on water resources and fossil fuels consumed to produce these high-tech goods, and a further "rebound effect" which increases the consumption of limited resources.
Like Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions, information technologies now have privilege of accompanying all innovations and changes of the technological society.
"Terminal " set out to analyse what has become obvious, and now releases its report examining the role information technology plays in sustainable development.

Is another world still possible?

It seems to me that ultimately, the contributions of this report send us back to a parallel question about sustainable development, the mode of development of our societies. The shockwaves from the deregulation which shook up the international financial system are far from over, as shown by the Greek and Irish crises. The resulting tensions, both monetary and economic, hardly favour long-term investment. The struggle against climate change has been singularly affected: There is a glaring absence of financial commitments from developed countries. Budget restrictions stemming from the financial crisis have led to a reluctance to release funds set aside for commitments. For example, how can our lavish an extra 420M€ on the struggle against climate change when the budget for national development (0.5% gross national revenue in 2010) is supposed to stagnate starting in 2011? Should we abandon ourselves to structural adjustment policies without fighting the drift of a financial capitalism blinded by its instruments? More than just a reorientation, is a rupture still possible? There are voices calling for an expanding of the role of the WTO to include environmental and social issues, or the setting up of a world organization for the environment. We are still allowed to hope… Between rounds of negotiations, each of the delegates was able to witness the degradation of the Cancùn seaside caused by the increase in ocean levels, the increasing number of cyclones, and the building along the coastline…an environmental trainwreck for nearly 40 years! From Cancùn to Durban, will we keep up our "Venetian folies"(5), with planetary consequences from the theatre of nature: Unusual looking countryside and reliefs; the most obnoxious carnival masks and the most futile machinations?

Dominique Desbois,

translated by Tom de Sousa.

(1) "Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation", international initiative launched in 2008 by the UN, setting up a specific programme, UN_REDD. For further details, see "Perspectives on Redd" at www.un-red.org.

(2) Created in 1993 following the Rio Summit, "Dossiers et Débats pour le Développement Durable" is an association which seeks to create a citizens network for sustainable development. (www.association4d.org).

(3) Research group for "l’Education et la Prospective". This non-profit association has published the revue Pour since 1967, in the form of theme issues, which gathers knowledge and views on questions of society raised by economic, social and cultural change. (www.grep.fr/pour).

(4) IPCC - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. See the opening speech by the President of the conference, Rajendra Pachauri, at www.ipcc.ch.

(5) Cf. the hotly contested mechanical sea wall system (Mose) being built at the mouth of the Venice lagoon to protect from acqua alta, regular flooding caused by the increase in the level of the Adriatic sea. The initial investment was estimated at 3.5 billion euros with annual operating cost of 35 million euros.

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