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Durban and the Closing Door


South Africa, the birthplace of the policy of racial oppression and exploitation called apartheid, was a perfect destination for a conference designed to consolidate a new regime of climate-based inequality. Despite press reports heralding the success of the “Durban Platform,” the 17th meeting of the United Nations Conference of Parties (aka COP17) in South Africa in fact sealed a separate and unequal deal on climate change. Now that the dust has begun to settle from the conference, we can make out the key features of what the Climate Justice Network calls climate apartheid.

Perhaps most importantly, the Durban conference failed to deliver a fair and binding agreement to reduce global carbon emissions. There has been a lot of celebration over the preservation of the Kyoto Protocol in the media, but the brinksmanship that led to this outcome has in fact created what Pablo Solón, Bolivia’s former ambassador to the United Nations, called a zombie agreement. Here’s why such a harsh label is apt.

At Durban, a number of the world’s most polluting countries declared that they intend to withdraw from Kyoto’s legally binding regime of emissions reductions. Of course the United States never ratified the agreement, but now Canada, Japan, and Russia have also pulled out, with Australia and New Zealand threatening to follow suit. This means that the second round of negotiations over Kyoto will cover just 1/3rd of the developed nations, who collectively account for only 15% of the world’s annual carbon emissions. Whatever cuts the big polluters make will be purely voluntary. All the world has, in other words, are the emissions cuts countries pledged to in Copenhagen in 2010. These insufficient cuts – even if adhered to – doom the planet to suicidal warming of 4-5° Celsius.

Nonetheless, the so-called Durban Platform establishes a working group tasked with agreeing on some sort of legally binding protocol by 2015 – the major reason for perceptions of the conference’s success. But this agreement – whatever shape it takes – will only come into effect in 2020. Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian environmentalist and chair of Friends of the Earth International, called this eight-year hiatus “a death sentence for Africa.”

Bassey is not alone in this assessment. A recent report by the International Energy Association gives the world only 5 years to make the necessary significant cuts to our fossil fuel-based infrastructure in order to avert catastrophic climate change. Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA, recently stated that “the door is closing” on the world’s efforts to prevent catastrophe. That door will of course close fastest and hardest on the most vulnerable people around the planet, including the many millions of rural farmers who depend on increasingly unstable weather patterns in Africa.

The Durban Platform also guts the progressive aspects of the previous most important addendum to the Kyoto Protocol – the Bali Action Plan (BAP). BAP built on Kyoto’s model of common but differentiated responsibilities to tackle climate change. After all, while developing nations such as China may be producing large amounts of carbon today, it is advanced industrial countries such as the US, Japan, and the members of the EU who really polluted the atmosphere in the two hundred years since the industrial revolution. The Bali plan was based on cuts proportionate to this historical responsibility. Durban does away with this element of atmospheric equity, meaning that poor countries whose citizens still contribute relatively little carbon pollution on a per capita basis will face similar mitigation responsibilities as those in the rich and over-consuming nations.

In addition, little progress was made in Durban on one of the primary goals of previous agreements: some sort of fund to help developing countries not only adapt to the disastrous impacts of climate change, but also to help them mitigate their emissions through the transfer of green technologies. True, a Green Climate Fund (GCF) was established at Durban, but it is essentially an empty shell. As presently constituted, the GCF relies on voluntary donations by wealthy nations. It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing in that regard; remember the yet-to-materialize $100 billion Hilary Clinton promised two years ago at Copenhagen? Furthermore, the private sector is explicitly able to access the GCF, meaning that large multi-national corporations could become recipients of mitigation dollars for big boondoggle projects like eucalyptus plantations.

Finally, the Durban Platform keeps the carbon trading provisions of the Kyoto Protocol on life support. This is probably the main reason for the efforts of the European Union at the conference, which many commentators mistakenly perceived as heroic. The European Emissions Trading System hinges on keeping prices of carbon at a level at which mitigation is attractive, but the cost of carbon keeps crashing.

Despite this terrible track record of efforts to commodify nature, Durban rolled out further mechanisms for financializing the environment. New provisions for soil carbon offsetting set up in Durban promise to allow polluting corporations to redeem their continuing emissions by paying other corporations to set up big farms (whose soli theoretically absorbs carbon) in poor countries, adding another factor to the already endemic displacement of peasants around the world.

The day before the UN conference began, flash floods tore through the city of Durban, killing six people and leaving hundreds homeless. As these floods, as well as catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina in the US, show, it is the poor – the people who are least responsible for climate change – who are most vulnerable to pollution-induced natural disasters. From the Horn of Africa to the Philippines to the small island state of Tuvalu, hundreds of millions of people are already bearing the brunt of a climate crisis they did not create.

Although organizations representing this global majority were present at Durban, their voices are not yet strong enough to prevail over the short-term, greed-based thinking of the powerful. Faced with the climate apartheid of Durban, we must redouble our efforts to organize the planetary majority in the struggle for an equitable and just approach to climate change. As they say in South Africa, in the call-and-response chant that was central to the overthrow of apartheid, Amandla! [Power] Awethu! [To the People].

Ashley Dawson  is Professor of English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.  He is the author of Mongrel Nation: Diasporic Culture and the Making of Post-Colonial Britain and co-author with Malini Johar Schueller of “Exceptional State: Contemporary US Culture and the New ImperialismHe can be reached

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