Climate talks adrift

Posted: 20 November 2006

Author: Rod Harbinson

Experts at the climate change conference in Nairobi agree that radical action is required, yet the political response has fallen short. Rod Harbinson explains why the summit has been a let-down for developing countries, and warns of a looming climate communication crisis.

Considering the extent of the climate change crisis described by the recent Stern report, the lack of urgency at the climate change summit in Nairobi has been marked.

The conference has remained impervious to the natural calamities taking place on its doorstep, with widespread flooding in Kenya and Ethiopia leading to tragic loss of life and livelihoods. But most delegates do admit that this year something has changed.

"Climate change has become a palpable reality and not just a future projection," said the delegate from Jordan - reflecting the mood that climate change is here and is happening now, a position few are prepared any longer to deny.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki voiced the urgency of the situation: "Tackling climate change is not a matter of choice. It is an imperative if we are to continue life on this planet."

Ten years and waiting

Most experts at the summit say that radical action is required within ten years or we can forget about a future for much of humanity and a large percentage of life on earth. With such high stakes increasingly recognised, the widespread 'wait and see' stance has caused surprise and frustration amongst observers.

Ice melting into the Arctic Ocean. Photo: Peter West/National Science Foundation
Ice melting into the Arctic Ocean. Photo: Peter West/National Science Foundation
Ice melting into the Arctic Ocean. Photo © Peter West/National Science Foundation
On the hard issue of framing a more robust reduction of emissions after the current commitment period expires in 2012, it seems that no country is willing to sign up first for fear of revealing their negotiating hand, a situation UN secretary-general Kofi Annan described as "leaderless".

The post-Kyoto agreement is supposed to conclude by 2009 to leave three years for implementation. By then, six of those critical ten years will be used up, leaving only four years for the world to throw its rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions into reverse and cut them by a staggering 80 per cent - the amount needed to stabilise the warming trend according to the Stern Report.

In comparison the Kyoto Protocol, agreed nearly ten years ago, sets a humble five per cent target. In fact, the emissions of many industrialised countries are actually increasing.

Slow pace

Frustration at the slow pace of change has led some to seek other policy avenues. Unusually, business and civil society share exasperation at the miles of red tape placed around every project investment by the Protocol's notoriously complex labyrinth of rules.

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is supposed to help poor countries develop by giving rich nations the option to buy emissions credits in projects in developing countries at a cheaper price than costly changes to industrial plants at home.

But Anders Wurman, Member of the European Parliament, said: "The problem we face is that the UN process is so slow and complicated and everything goes at a snail's pace." Wurman, who is involved in a large reforestation project in Columbia added, "we decided not to involve the CDM because it is so complicated and costly".

Africa left out

A notable embarrassment for proponents of the CDM is that only nine projects are taking place in Africa out of the 408 approved globally, with most going to relatively rich developing countries like China, India and Brazil. They have the capacity to engage expensive consultants in the paperwork, unlike most African nations.

A new UN partnership presented at the meeting - 'The Nairobi Framework' - aims to address the situation by helping governments to access CDM funds. This means that "sub-Saharan Africa and other poor countries can have their fair share of carbon finance," according to UN spokesman, Olav Kjorven.

Critics say the CDM mechanism is missing out the countries most in need of the sustainable development which the CDM is supposed to deliver. "It's a market-based system and Africa is not the place that foreign direct investment goes," said Janos Pasztor, officer in charge of the CDM at the UN climate change secretariat.

A buyer's market

Critics of the CDM point out that the market mechanism creates a race to the bottom as buyers seek the cheapest possible carbon credits. The CDM equivalent of a pile-it-high bargain basement in carbon is a large-scale project, like an industrial tree plantation, which lacks the more considered appreciation of local needs found in small projects designed from the ground up.

The CDM is strict on counting carbon - a notoriously difficult exercise, which can prove prohibitively expensive for small local projects. Simone Lovera of the Global Forest Coalition pointed out that "small projects generally cost much more than the current market cost of the carbon saved", bringing into question the viability of small-scale projects.

A place for forests?

Forests cleared for timber and ranching contribute 20 per cent of global carbon emissions. But natural forests are not included in the Kyoto Protocol.

Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica say forests should be in, and that rich countries should pay to keep them intact. Anders Wurman, supporter of the proposal, said: "As long as forests don't have a value it will be difficult to avoid deforestation".

Ian Swingland from Sustainable Forest Management has done the sums based on the current rate of deforestation of 12 million hectares globally: "The annual required payout at US$4,000 per hectare would total $48 billion," he said.

Others say this is an under-estimate, and that the best way to avoid tropical deforestation is to give land rights to its traditional custodians - indigenous peoples.

Hungry goats in Sudan feed on a single acacia tree. Photo: FAO
Hungry goats in Sudan feed on a single acacia tree. Photo: FAO
Hungry goats in Sudan feed on a single acacia tree in the desert.© FAO
"I think we need to persuade the conference to embrace forests," said Wangari Maathai, lauded environmentalist of the Kenyan Greenbelt Movement. "One of the few things that individuals can do is plant trees," she said, announcing the 'billion trees campaign'.

Communication crisis

The jargon-laden negotiations led one civil society representative to comment that: "acronyms are killing the planet".

With experts themselves now choosing to sit outside meeting rooms because even they are failing to understand what is being discussed, the situation appears to be reaching a Kafkaesque crisis in communication - which observers say the planet can ill afford at this point in time.

"It is important to ensure that information on climate change is available in Africa," President Kibaki told the summit.

But Africa is not the only region suffering this problem according to scholar Liisa Antilla: "There is a crisis of misinformation in the United States press about climate change," she said, citing her research study which looked at the way misinformation has been successfully spread by those with vested interests, like oil companies.

Disaster yes, action no

If the current level of progress remains the same over the next ten years the UN climate change convention is unlikely to hit its goal of stopping the global warming trend. Those that remain engaged place their faith in this international forum as the best hope of finding a common solution.

This year delegates articulated the urgency confronting the world clearer than ever before. Yet the political response fell short. Pundits of political change have long said that a disaster is required before people will act. This year we have the disaster but the action has failed to follow.

Leon Charles, climate change project coordinator for the island of Grenada succinctly summed up the problem: "If we do not exist then we cannot develop".

Source: Panos Features. (Panos Features are published by Panos London, an independent foundation which is part of a network of Panos institutes dedicated to reporting on environment and development issues from a human perspective. See: www.panos.org.uk/