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Climate Change



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Issue #1439      9 December 2009

Copenhagen climate conference

Global action needed NOW

The key issue at the climate change meeting in Copenhagen this week is the future of the Kyoto Protocol (KP). The conference should be finalising and signing off on a new round of greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments by developed countries. There appears to be little prospect of that happening. Instead, the conference is shaping up to be a life and death struggle by the poorer nations of the world against developed nations (including the US and Australia) whose aim is to kill off the Protocol.

A demonstration in Manila, The Philippines, on 8 September.

Contrary to certain claims in the media, the Kyoto Protocol does not expire in 2012. The task at Copenhagen is the further implementation of the Protocol, not oversee its extinction.

“The Kyoto Protocol is the only legally constituted working model we have of international commitment and co-operation to reduce greenhouse gases. And you don’t saw off the branch you’re sitting on”, said Yvo de Boer who heads the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC).

A few facts

The Kyoto Protocol is one of two protocols under the UNFCCC adopted at the Rio World Climate Summit in 1990 – the other is on biodiversity. It is international law, a legally binding treaty, and has been ratified by 189 of the NFCCC’s 197 Parties. The US is the only major industrialised economy that is not a party to the KP.

One of the most important principles of the UNFCCC is “common but differentiated responsibilities”. This principle is based on the recognition that developed counties are principally responsible for the current high levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. It takes into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing countries.

In accord with this principle, the governments of 37 developed* (wealthier, industrialised) countries and the EU agreed to slash greenhouse gas emissions by an average target of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels over the period 2008-2012. This is known as the first commitment period under the Protocol. Individual country targets were negotiated, depending on their specific conditions. Australia was one of only two countries actually permitted to increase emissions over that period (by 8 percent).

The developing nations gave commitments to collect and submit data and formulate and implement mitigation and adaptation measures. Mitigation involves avoiding and reducing emissions and adaptation involves actions to deal with the effects of climate change. These commitments are conditional on receiving financial and technological assistance which the developed nations are legally bound to provide. Needless to say they have failed to provide the required assistance and this remains one of the big issues still to be resolved.

The KP does not end in 2012. The year designates the completion of the first of a series of ongoing commitment periods for developed countries. All other provisions of the Protocol and UNFCCC remain in force. December 2009 was set as the date for finalising commitments to give countries time to prepare for the second period of emission reductions which start in 2013. Under the KP, this is the key task of the Copenhagen conference – to finalise the terms of the second commitment period.

Requirements of Copenhagen

As a very minimum, for the Copenhagen meeting to meet the realities of climate change and be deemed as successful, the following outcomes are required:

1. The retention in full of the Kyoto Protocol. “What was signalled in Bangkok in early October was confirmed in Barcelona [in November], that almost all the developed countries have decided to abandon the Protocol.” South Bulletin** Issue No 42, November 30, 2009.

2. Agreement on an aggregate and individual emission reduction commitments by developed nations for the second commitment period commencing in 2013 and the length of this period.

For the internationally recognised target of limiting temperature rise of 2°C, global emissions must peak no later than 2015, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Global emissions need to be reduced by 40 percent by 2020 to stave off the worst effects of climate change based on the 2°C target. This demands swift, decisive action.

(The Alliance of Small Island States, whose members are already seeing their shore lines shrink and communities displaced, is calling for a 45 percent reduction by 2020.)

3. Commitment by developed countries to provide financial and technological assistance to developing countries to enable them to develop and implement mitigation and adaptation measures without hindering their development. This includes an effective mechanism for the development and transfer of technology and institutional arrangements to deliver finance for adaptation.

4. Developing country commitments to collect and submit data and formulate and implement mitigation and adaptation measures – conditional on receiving financial and technological assistance which the developed nations are legally bound to provide.

Negotiations began four years ago for the second commitment period. As the Copenhagen deadline grew closer, developed countries looked more and more as though they wanted to abandon the Protocol.

Two track negotiations

The US is the only major developed country that has not signed the KP, and Obama has no intention of doing so. A second track of negotiations for the US within the UNFCCC was agreed to at the Bali climate change conference in 2007. Once the KP nations have negotiated their commitments (under the KP – the first track) the US has agreed to make a comparable commitment within the UNFCCC.

Having gained that concession, the US with the support of the EU, Japan and Australia, has since argued for the two tracks to be merged into a “single legally binding instrument” or a “single new treaty”. That would mean the demise of the KP after 2012. This is clearly their aim. The single treaty demand is one of a number of different approaches being used by developed nations to walk out from under and render the KP redundant.

Attempts to kill off Kyoto

The Obama administration has come up with an “implementing proposal”, or “pledge and review” approach, where countries make pledges under domestic law and bring them to the international community to review their progress in implementing them. This amounts to an ad hoc, uncoordinated, individually determined set of national targets without any consideration being given to the aggregate global reductions required. In effect, it is a poor substitute for the KP with no co-operation, operating outside the compliance regimes of international law.

Australia’s Climate Change Minister Penny Wong is amongst those pressing for an “international political agreement” at Copenhagen. Australia, she said, is committed to playing its part in “working to develop a new long-term approach for global co-operation on climate change.” This is short-hand for replacing the KP by something weaker outside of the UNFCCC. The UNFCCC and KP are “long-term” and involve “co-operation”. The difference is that the KP is a legally binding treaty, whereas a political agreement would place no legal obligations on Australia under international law.

Australia and a number of other developed countries also tried at the Barcelona meeting in November to shift the agenda to the G7, in much the same way as they are undermining the UN and promoting the G20 as the international body responsible for addressing the global economic crisis. (See Guardian, No 1436, 18-11-09)

Just about every dirty trick in the book has been used by negotiators from developed nations to split the ever-growing unity and determination of the poor nations to make Copenhagen a success and to shift the burden onto their shoulders.

They have tried to buy off smaller nations – the old divide and rule tactic. The developing countries are fighting a life and death struggle and from past experiences at the World Trade Organisation quickly saw through their scheming and failure to honour their obligations.

Developed countries, including Australia, held back from making firm commitments, demanding others put their targets on the table first. They put pressure on developing countries, in particular China, India, South Africa and Brazil, to come up with commitments to reduce emissions contrary to the “differentiated responsibilities” principle of the UNHCCC and provisions of the KP. The aim of imposing commitments on these countries is to hinder their development which is a threat to US, EU and Japanese economic global domination.

In the lead-up to Copenhagen the media has been flooded with “leaked emails” and other spurious stories designed to sew seeds of doubt in people’s minds about the science of climate change. In Australia, we saw the spectacle of climate change deniers take over the Liberal Party leadership. In addition to the deniers are the so-called sceptics, those who refuse to acknowledge scientific reality and blindly promote the narrow corporate interests of their donors.

Pathetic offers

The latest figures released at Barcelona in November, indicate developed countries commitments, including the US, are 12-19 percent of what is required – hardly an ambitious target! (Figures supplied by the Alliance of Small Island States)

The Australian government speaks in terms of 5-25 percent based on the year 2000. Its use of the year 2000 is a dirty attempt to cover up its appallingly and embarrassingly inadequate commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The base year which is used under the Protocol for calculating global averages and comparing national commitments is 1990. Australia’s internationally comparable target range is for a pathetic 2- 22 percent by 2020.

The US is offering a reduction that amounts to 2-5 percent by 2020, Canada 3 percent, New Zealand 10-20 percent and Japan 25 percent. The only industrialised nations offering anything up to 40 percent are Norway and Russia.

Patent barriers

One of the biggest barriers to poor nations attempting to take mitigation and adaptation measures is the private ownership of and exclusive access to the necessary technology and know-how. This is protected by so-called intellectual property rights (IPRs) – patents and other legal instruments. It can only be accessed at high and very profitable (for their owners) prices. The corporations holding IPRs are predominantly based in the rich nations. It is a system of protectionism, backed by the World Trade Organisation that holds back industrialisation of the poorer nations.

The G77*** and China, speaking at Barcelona in November, proposed that patents on climate-related technology be exempted for developing countries. Their proposal fell on deaf ears on the benches of the rich nations. It would not be good for profits!

The South Bulletin (Number 40) notes: “There is clear evidence of an upward trend in the patenting of climate-related technologies since the mid-1990s. This trend will continue as climate concerns heighten, funding for research and development increases, and governments adopt frameworks for a greener economy.”

In the US there is a spate of legislation before Congress that aims to tighten protection of IPRs and make a fortune for US corporations out of mitigation measures addressing climate change. Amendments to the American Clean Energy and Security Act (already passed through the House) categorically state the aim of promoting “robust compliance with and enforcement of existing international legal requirements for the protection of IPRs …”

The legislation sees investments in clean technology in developing countries as an opportunity to “open up new markets for the United States companies”.

To the corporate sector in the US, Japan, Australia and other developed countries, the key question is exploiting climate change to secure new markets, investments and sources of monopoly profits. The emissions trading schemes are a means of privatising and commodifying carbon emissions for profit.

These vultures look in horror at proposals for knowledge and technology to be shared freely amongst the developing nations of the world – whether it be green planet-saving or life-saving technology, life-saving medications, research findings, or anything of benefit to humanity.

Capitalism a barrier

Capitalism, US imperialism in particular, is proving incapable of taking the necessary measures to address climate change. Our planet and all the people on it face an emergency requiring urgent action of a substantial nature. The main barrier to progress is capitalism. The origins of the crisis lie in the heedless drive of capitalism for profits regardless of social and environmental costs. The same drive for profits lies behind the failure of rich nations to make the necessary commitments to save the planet.

There is only one reason governments and their corporate advisers are holding back on the necessary emission reduction commitments, holding back on assistance to developing countries, refusing to lift IPRs and take the necessary measures to save the planet. That is the protection of private profits. Such a system is unsustainable, there can be no doubt about that.

The current climate crisis is already causing immense human suffering and loss of life. The most seriously affected so far are the poor of the world. If the governments of wealthy nations and their corporate patrons wait until it starts to hit them, which it will inevitably, it will be too late to do anything.

Climate change is universal, but the solution depends on the outcomes of the struggle between the poor and rich nations, and most importantly the struggles within national borders. The ruling class is divided; there are sections of it that are more enlightened and concerned.

It is our responsibility in Australia to alert people to the government’s true agenda and the deceptive and disastrous direction it is taking – nothing short of betrayal of the world’s people and the planet – and to build the broadest possible movement in support of the Kyoto Protocol and firm action and commitment for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions in Australia.

There is only one way forward. Collective, globally co-ordinated action is required NOW. Regardless of its imperfections, the Kyoto Protocol is the only instrument available NOW. It must be defended and implemented to the full.

“When we ask why they are not willing to put numbers on the table they said it is economically and politically difficult. But for us it is a question of life and death, due to the climate change impact brought abut by the actions and the lifestyles in the North.” These comments from Grace Ukamu of Kenya, who spoke on behalf of the Africa Group, sum up the great divide between the North and South, the rich and the poor nations, the corporate sector and the people of the world on the question of arresting climate change.

* The developed nations whose first period commitments are listed in Annexe I of the KP.

** The South Bulletin is published by the South Centre, a Geneva-based research group that provides support to 51 developing nations,

*** The G77 is a group of developing countries first established in 1964 with 77 members to increase their capacity to promote their collective economic and other interests at the UN. The group has since grown to 130 member countries, spanning Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific and the south and Central American continents. China as worked closely with them and also been represented by them at recent climate change talks.

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