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Disagreements in Durban

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Poor countries come away empty handed from 17th UN conference on global warming

Climate smart agriculture, green economy, green city, renewable energy, green climate fund, moral obligations, voices of farmers, and the need for binding agreement on extension of Kyoto Protocol, last December competed for attention at the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa.

Alongside these messages were groups of demonstrators shouting climate-related messages at one of the world’s top 20 conference facilities in Durban.

Just outside the main conference centre, women farmers brandishing handwritten banners and claiming to have travelled by road from all over East, Central and Sothern Africa to the climate change meeting, the 17th UN Conference of Parties (COP17) were determined to have their voices heard. Unfortunately few or none had direct access to the official negotiations in the boardrooms and conference rooms where technocrats, with heads buried in the computer consoles, haggled over texts of the conference agreements, its comas, paragraphs and legal implications that would determine the fate of millions of lives that are increasingly at the mercy of ruthless impact of climate change.


When distilled, the messages had one focus; mitigating the impact of climate change. They went beyond massive floods, rainfall pattern shifts, and drought. They talked about food shortage, starvation, misery.

At the impressively green and beautiful main campus of KwaZulu Natal University tens of smallholder women farmers who had travelled by road to Durban from villages several miles away; from Bujumbura, Kampala, Nairobi, Lilongwe, Lusaka, Maputo, Harare, on the so-called Caravan of Hope had pitched-camp. They too wanted their voices heard in the climate talks. They shared stories of how climate change was impacting their farming.
“This season the drought was prolonged and it burnt up my entire maize garden,” said a woman from Malawi, “we are now short of food in my home. Farming is my family’s main source of income. Crop failure means it will become hard to run a home, send children to school without money and food.”

Uganda’s Minister for Water and Environment, Maria Mutagamba, told the conference that a global agreement to cut down deforestation was needed in regard to the UN collaborative programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) in Developing Countries.

Forests play a vital role in stabilizing global climate change since they store large quantities of carbon, both in the trees and vegetation itself and within the soil in the form of decaying plant matter. When forests are destroyed, more carbon escapes into the atmosphere increasing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and accelerating the rate of climate change. So REDD was introduced to encourage countries to protect their forests and get a motivation fee for the amount of carbon trapped.

Mutagamba said real solutions are needed to stop deforestation by tackling its underlying drivers; poverty, population explosion, and lack of alternative livelihoods.

Massive felling of trees on Elgon Mountain has been associated with the recent landslides that caused extensive harm to people’s livelihoods in the area. Studies show that between 1990 and 2005, Uganda lost 26.3% of its remaining forest cover, and today deforestation continues at an unabated rate of 2.2% annually. In 2009 the National Environment Management Authority issued a report in which it said Uganda was at a dire risk of losing 38% its forest cover by 2020.

After 2007 when the Teso region which neighbors Elgon was flooded, there was severe famine in the area in 2009.

As historian and journalist Gwynne Dyer argues in his book, Climate Wars, many who convened in Durban understood that “the core problem with climate change is not sea level rise or biodiversity; it is food supply”. Dyer argued that countries are barely able to feed billions of the people on earth. “At 2 degrees hotter, many hundreds of millions are at risk of starvation. At 5 degrees hotter, there are no good options left. What makes this a political and potentially a strategic issue is the fact that the misery will not be equally shared.”

The World Meteorological Organisation released a report on the sidelines of COP17 showing the world is getting warmer and that 2011 was one of the hottest years on record. It attributes this to human activity.

Scientists say climate change affects every country differently and countries have varied adaptation and mitigation capacities. But the least developed countries, who are the poorest and least contributors to climate change, are the most at risk.

So when COP17 was held on the African soil in Durban many had high hopes it would mark a positive turning for climate change prone countries. But that was not to be. The richer countries; Japan, Canada, Russia, and the USA and the emerging economies of Brazil, China and South Africa deliberately frustrated a better deal out of Durban COP17.

When on the first day of the climate talks Canada announced it was pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol which governs the global warming mitigation plan, it poured cold water on COP17 and froze the mood of negotiators.

Soon the richer countries were arguing with the emerging economies to first commit to compensate for any climate change damage before they could fulfill their historical damage responsibility.

On Dec. 9, the the official last day of COP17, world leaders were supposed to have come up with a roadmap on cutting carbon emissions in the next eight years but they had nothing. Most negotiators had lost hope. The negotiations were pushed overtime into the night and into Dec. 10.  Still no significant deal emerged.

Conference President Makaite Nkoana-Mashabane summed up the mood:  “Already more than 24 hours into injury time of this Conference, we need to take  a  step  back  tonight …You  have  spent many a late hour debating each and every little detail. On the greatest majority of issues you were able to find mutually acceptable solutions.  I  have  full  appreciation  that  some  of  you may feel that what we have achieved  is  too modest, while others feel that they are being asked to do too  much.  I believe however that the package before us is the bridge that will join us together.”

The compromise deal was a disappointment in the hearts of many especially the civil society groups. Oxfam issued a press release titled: “Durban Platform leaves world sleepwalking towards four degrees warming”. The world had given in to polluters at the expense of the planet. The Durban agreement managed to deliver the Green Climate Fund but without any sources of funding, it managed to preserve a narrow pathway to avoid 4 degrees of warming and get a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol but without the key members like Russia, Japan and the USA which are major carbon emitters.

Clearly this was not what the African Group of negotiators had hoped for. On the second day of COP17 the African Group of negotiators had announced their five favoured outcomes from Durban:  A green climate fund to compensate for damage industrialised countries contributed to climate change, a legally binding agreement to make countries cut carbon emissions, and a second commitment to Kyoto Protocol.

Under the Durban Agreement, governments will now spend four years negotiating how far and how fast each country should cut carbon emissions.  The Durban climate Agreement paves way for a binding deal in 2015 and it’s a template for the COP18 to be held in Qatar next year. Scientists say the current emissions targets set by developed and developing countries were inadequate, and if they were not strengthened, the poorest would be hurt most. If the success of COP17 is defined as countries agreeing to take the urgent action needed to avert the worst consequences of climate change, then it was generally a failure. Not enough has been done to stop global warming from reaching 3-4°C.

The positive about the Durban climate deal is that governments have reopened the door to a legally binding global agreement involving the world’s major emitters. Many thought this door had been shut at the Copenhagen Conference in 2009. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says that countries’ current emissions pledges would collectively mean that global annual emissions of greenhouse gases would be about 50 billion tonnes in 2020, similar to the total in 2011. But to have a better chance of avoiding global warming over 2°C, scientists estimate that global annual emissions would need to fall to about 44 billion tonnes in 2020, to less than 35 billion tonnes in 2030 and less than 20 billion tonnes in 2050.

Some participants in the talks said current pledges had been covered at last year’s conference in Cancún where countries confirmed their emissions targets. Instead they argued COP17 was about diplomacy; mainly, the issue of whether countries should be bound to cut emissions through an international treaty, or should make voluntary pledges. The question has dogged the talks for over a decade.

At the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, nations failed to write a treaty though they did sign up to a lesser form of agreement, in which the world’s biggest emitters – developed and developing – set out targets to curb their carbon by 2020.

“If action is not taken, farmers in parts of Africa could face a drop in crop yields of more than fifty percent within this generation or that of their children.  Food prices could more than double within the next two decades, up to half of which caused by climate change. This makes delivering real concrete assistance to ensure the most vulnerable people can protect themselves from a changing climate even more vital,” said Celine Charveriat, Director of Advocacy for Oxfam.

Susan Nanduddu, a representative of DENIVA Uganda at COP17, sums up the Durban climate deal as one of “compromise”. “Let’s do what’s in our means to make communities more resilient to impact of climate change. For instance can NAADS programme ensure that people it targets become more climate resilient in future,” Nanduddu said.

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