Fortunately, the world will not end in Durban

Two years ago, at the start of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, expectations were high. The event attracted a slew of media attention reflecting high hopes for an extension to the Kyoto Protocol or for the drafting of a new international framework. It did not happen.

At the 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, expectations are lower. Today, delegations from over 195 countries are wrapping up two weeks of events, conferences, meetings, and of course, tumultuous negotiations. As expected, a new international binding agreement on the environment will not be reached in Durban, and some countries, including Canada, Japan and Russia, are even considering leaving the Kyoto Protocol before the end of the first commitment period scheduled for 31 December 2012.

Unless we witness a radical change in positions, the post-Kyoto era will most probably begin without a new agreement or even a watered down framework. For the environmentalist, the green activist or the environmentally aware citizen, this is nothing short of a disaster. International leaders have once again failed them, and future generations will likely remember that international politics got in the way of serious and pragmatic solutions to a worldwide environmental crisis.

Putting Durban in context

Incongruous as it may seem, international politics might not be the best venue for practical solutions, especially in this current historical context. There are at least three contextual reasons for that.

First, world leaders have other important and very serious issues on their hands. Of course, climate change is a crucial issue, but it is being pushed down the list of political priorities by other events. A financial crisis currently threatens the existence of the European Union and the leadership role of the United States, respectively the third and second world’s biggest emitters of CO2. This economic situation has also had repercussions, albeit smaller, on the export driven economies of Asia. Moreover, unemployment rates in developed nations are soaring; some have even reached the twenty per cent mark. Popular revolts have also hit a diverse group of countries, ranging from the Arab Spring in the Middle East to Los Indignados in Spain and the social protests in Greece, to the Occupy Wall Street movement that has now spread to Australia, Japan and Taiwan in the Asia Pacific. Furthermore, the Arab Spring revolts and increasing social disparities have China, the world’s biggest emitter, nervously monitoring its domestic scene.

Second, there still exist a division of labour in the world, and this is reflected in the increasingly diverging opinions on who should bare the economic cost of future environmental actions. The current economic situation has increased divisions and it has certainly not helped with negotiations in Durban. Developing countries, especially in Asia, have been registering high growth rates and will continue to do so in the years to come. These rising economies tend to view economic growth as inexorably linked to increased emissions, a viewpoint that is only slowly beginning to change. On the other hand, developed countries are struggling with sovereign debt crisis and growth rates are dismal.

The developed world has historically been the major contributor to the current environmental situation. Consequently, emerging economic powers represented by the BASIC countries - a political group formed by Brazil, South Africa, India and China in 2009 - have based their current demands on this historical reality. But, in this current economic context, it is unlikely that their demands, which consist of putting the financial burden on the developed countries by asking them to provide financial and technological support to the developing world, will be met satisfactorily this week or even in the years to come.

Third, and not least, there is simply no political will to negotiate an effective treaty. Although no country wants to be blamed for the failed negotiations, the political pressure at home is simply absent, as people are more worried about their economic well being in the midst of the global economic slowdown. Without political will, international negotiations are less likely to yield results.

Nevertheless, some positive trends worthy of optimism

A new international binding agreement, as great as it would be, is not necessary for the world to move forward - at least not for now. Fortunately, the world will not end in Durban and climate change solutions will likely grow in numbers and effectiveness in the years to come. Here are four reasons why.

Socially, the outlook is positive. Over the last decade, we have seen a global trend towards acknowledging the seriousness of the environmental crisis. Climate change deniers are now fewer than ever. The last to come out of this unlikely group of sceptics is the American scientist, Dr Richard Muller, who for two years did a study to find out if global warming was really happening. His research was partially funded by a conservative organization, the Charles Koch Foundation, known to have funded many climate change deniers’ studies in the past. This time, Dr Muller concluded that temperatures are definitely rising rapidly and he acknowledged that something needs to be done.

Scientifically, the consensus is now more united than ever. Scientists agree that with climate change, we are heading towards unknown territory with potentially disastrous effects. This consensus and the above-mentioned growing social acceptance have certainly helped with the research and development of clean technology around the world. Massive investments to find technological solutions to prevent devastating environmental events from unfolding are now being made. Technology is evolving and governments – though not all - are betting on investments in R&D.

Economically, the massive investments have created a new reality. The private sector is now more involved than ever before. Old and newly formed companies are looking for ways to enter the lucrative clean energy market, and this is a positive trend. With public and private investments rising, we will certainly see the implementation of new products that will help create solutions.

Politically, although it is difficult to imagine a new international framework any time soon, if we look outside the multilateral framework of the United Nations, there is a good deal of international cooperation in the environmental sector. It is a growing trend. For example, Canada and China have recently signed a memorandum of understanding on environmental cooperation. New Zealand has environmental agreements with Thailand, Chile, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong and China. And Singapore has, among other bilateral efforts, an Indonesia-Singapore Environmental Partnership, a Germany-Singapore Environmental Technology Agency and an Environment and Water Cooperation agreement with China.

Global policy-making has evolved in the environmental sector and bilateral and regional agreements have multiplied in the past few decades. At home, most countries are also doing what they can. Different strategies are put forward, such as feed-in-tariffs to encourage clean energy investments, carbon pricing, carbon taxes, carbon credit systems and, as mentioned above, public money is being invested in research and development.

Trusting our survival instincts

Some say we are now in a do-or-die situation; and unless we agree on a new international binding framework the world will most likely end sooner than it should. Yes, the current situation is alarming. But we must also admit that, over the last three decades, we have come a long way socially, politically, economically and scientifically.

Alarmist discourses are perhaps necessary to set the pace and tone required to make people move forward rapidly. But climate change has now been politicised, and the world today is much more aware that something has to be done to reduce our emissions and to protect our environment. An international binding agreement is part of the answer, but it is not the only way forward.

Make no mistake, we need to continue to strive for an international framework, but in this current historical context, we also need to continue moving forward nationally, bilaterally and regionally. Despite the alarmist discourse, evidence suggests we are moving in the right direction. Some might disagree on the pace, but at least we have nearly universal agreement that action is required. This stance might sound too optimistic, but it is based on a healthy trust in our survival instincts.

We now know we have to act, so we will, and we are.

François Perreault is a research associate at the Canada Research Chair in Canadian Foreign and Defense Policy. Based in Singapore, his current research interests revolve around Canada’s foreign and defense policy in Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific region.

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