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Durban calling

November 26, 2011

London: I thought I’d mark my 3-year bloggiversary with an update post – a look back, a look forward, a look inward and outward (who knows, maybe I’ll find my lost Oyster card). This time last year, we were with giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. The year before, we were with mountain gorillas in the volcanic highlands of Rwanda. And this time 3 years ago, we were setting off on our extraordinary journey, heading for the Himalayas in Nepal – all highlights in an incredible 28 months. But for more than half a year, I’ve been fixed in London, where the everyday issues of the developing world are faraway and seldom mentioned.

Female gorilla in Rwanda

Now, I’m preparing to head for Durban in South Africa, where the world’s leaders gather next week to negotiate how we will reduce the anthropogenic climate change threats, including of melting glaciers in Nepal, drought in Rwanda and acidifying oceans around the Galapagos. The likelihood that heads of state will experience a collective epiphany over the coming fortnight – in which, knowing the world’s top scientists’ predictions of dire consequences for humanity (in the rich and poor world) if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut NOW, they decide to put aside the problems of social construct (like the economy) to deal decisively with problems of the Earth’s physical limits – is slim to nil.

With Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, in London

Data show that global carbon emissions are soaring, in 2010 we pumped record amounts into the atmosphere – a 6% jump, which is the highest year-on-year rise and worse than the IPCC’s 2007 worst-case scenario. The gap between our furious trajectory and the path we need to be on by 2020 if we are to remain within the ‘safe’ warming of 2 degrees, can still be bridged – and cheaply – according to UNEP. Current pledges, let alone action, are way off target, and every country has by now experienced some effect of climate change, whether it be warmer seas or land, drought, floods or extreme weather. All the political players at this month’s negotiations agree that climate change is a real problem that needs addressing.

It seems unbelievable, then, that many developed and developing nations are approaching the crucial opportunity for action and progress at Durban with preprepared excuses. The US and Saudia Arabia are refusing to sign off on the international Green Climate Fund, in which rich countries help poor ones to adapt to climate change. Other countries are talking about agreement in 2015 or as late as 2020, as if it were somehow possible to negotiate with physics.

Turkana woman, northern Kenya, which has endured nearly a decade of drought

Preventing climate change seems to have become perceived as some enormous, expensive – almost insurmountable – problem. Governments seem to think that by agreeing to any sort of emissions target, they are giving valuable ground and weakening their state’s diplomatic position – as if there were some benefit in being inefficient, polluting and slow to grow a clean-tech industry.

However, even though international agreement grows daily less likely, there has been progress at a national level. Emerging nations from China to Brazil to Mexico to India have taken often quite major steps towards a green-growth economy, and even the smallest and poorest countries have issued low-carbon development and action plans, from Bangladesh to Rwanda to the Maldives. Small disconnected steps to solving an enormous global crisis.

Energy decisions made now will determine whether orang utans survive the next decades

Politicians may be unwilling to look further ahead than their next election, but some sectors regularly do look to the future for daily decision making, such as pension fund managers and other longterm investors. Industry is taking the risks of climate change on board and acting accordingly. Some believe that we may have reached a tipping point for momentum on carbon action from businesses – they are forging ahead and setting their own carbon standards. At the same time, whatever the ludicrous desire of government and energy companies to build new coal-fired power stations is, in Europe (apart from Poland), they are falling at the first hurdle: pension funds won’t invest in them, because they represent a poor prospect. Even if there is little disincentive to releasing CO2 from coal now, investors know that the time will soon come when the price of carbon will impact any financial returns.

But this momentum is fragile and must be nurtured. Without binding agreements over how much each nation can be allowed to emit and a price put on carbon to allow markets to innovate and adapt, these efforts will falter. I sometimes wonder where we would be now, if Jimmy Carter had served another term, or Al Gore had made it to office. But there is little point in such musings.

Children in Madagascar. More than one-third of people do not have electricity

The difficulty with curbing carbon emissions is not one of cost (it’s really not that expensive), or of technology (we have the knowhow) or even of electoral support – most people believe we should act on this global issue. Instead, the problem is more to do with an intrinsic societal stasis: We operate in a world built on and optimised for working with plentiful fossil fuels. Alternatives to coal are a first step; moving away from fossil fuels entirely, is the goal, and that means tough policies on transport and agriculture. Energy markets must be reformed from the 20th-century goal of cheap fossil energy, towards optimising low-carbon production and distribution nationally and across regions. Financial risk must be managed, so investors provide capital to build the infrastructure for 21st-century industrial revolution.

Around 2 billion people on the planet don’t have access to electricity – and the rest of us are certainly not going to stop needing it anytime. We have constructed a global economy based on making a few people in a few countries rich. Resolving the climate change problem means tackling social inequality within nations as well as between them, while reconfiguring markets to incentivise low-carbon energy production.

Social change is key to sustainable management of our shared resources

Absolutely key to a sustainable future must be a new social movement – an engaged civic society that actively works against social inequality at a community level right through to the top echelons. The Occupy movements we’ve seen in several cities might well be the first stirrings of such an action – indeed, they may hold some sort of protest in Durban – but the movement is disparate and is so far not being taken seriously by governments. In the 1930s and 1960s, people campaigned for social change on a far bigger scale; the change needed now, must be still bigger and, crucially, occur faster. The planet won’t wait and people will grow hungry.

East Africa is the birthplace of humanity

Climate change is perhaps the most serious problem ever to affect the poor. But people will not die solely because of changes in the weather. The majority of the deaths occurring now and in the future “due to climate change” are as much to do with inequalities, poor governance, social, technological and economic failings, as with meteorological alteration. This is a good thing, because it’s much harder to change the weather than introduce good and effective policy change.

Let’s try to be good ancestors.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Attila permalink
    November 27, 2011 10:09 am

    “Let’s try to be good ancestors.” Apt slogan for the Durban conference – and for us all!

  2. December 1, 2011 2:08 pm

    ‘as if it were somehow possible to negotiate with physics’ – exactly.

    The accounting scam has become the dominant political and industrial tactic of our time (the private finance initiative in the UK for example, or special purpose vehicles in the financial sector). Governments have got so used to massaging appearances to suit their own short-term purposes that they’ve forgotten any other way to be.

    Durban will be no different, but it’s heartening what you say about business and civil society. That’s where the leadership must come from, as it usually does regarding any progressive change. If the people don’t care, the powerful won’t bother.

    On the plus side, TFL replace a lost Oyster card really quite quickly, as I discovered recently.

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