By Joshua Kyalimpa
Entire societies will be lost forever if we delay reaching a climate change agreement in Durban, warns Rezaul Karim Chowdhury of the Coastal Association for Social Transformation Trust (COAST).
“Let us not be witness to that unfortunate happening. Extreme events beyond everybody’s expectation are now observed more and more frequently and we know the consequence of that,” Chowdhury said.
Governments of low-lying island states such as the Maldives, the Bahamas, or the Pacific nation of Kiribati say their very physical existence is threatened by sea level rise of one metre – anticipated to take place by 2100.
Chowdhury’s home country, Bangladesh, is also caught in the crosshairs of global warming – rising temperatures and sea levels, changing weather patterns increasing catastrophic flooding from both swollen rivers and storm surges from intensifying monsoons will hit this low-lying, agriculture-dependent country full in the face.
A map produced by the United Nations Environment Programme shows that an area of this South Asian state that is home to 15 million people will be entirely submerged by a one-metre rise in sea levels. Long before then, increasing numbers of floods will erode riverbanks, and destroy homes, farms, roads and other infrastructure while taking longer to recede, hampering agriculture. Lingering floodwater will test public health systems wrestling with waterborne diseases.
The fears of Bangladesh and other low-lying states are an urgent reminder as the 17th Conference of Parties remains unlikely to agree on even a minimal programme of emissions reductions by developed countries – historically the worst polluters – or financial assistance for vulnerable developing nations.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon poured cold water on the talks Tuesday Dec. 6 when he told delegates that a global, legally-binding deal on climate change could well be off the agenda for now. He blamed grave economic troubles in many countries for overshadowing the talks, which are now in their second week but little tangible progress before they conclude on Dec. 10.
South African Bishop Geoff Davies head of the Anglican Church compared rich countries’ behaviour in Durban to apartheid, saying wealthy nations were trying to keep power and wealth for themselves. “Decision makers need to put the needs of people and the planet before profits.”
The parties remain sharply divided. Coastal states, small island nations and the Africa group are pushing for a second commitment by developed countries to reduce emissions to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. The U.S. and Canada say any new commitment should be delayed until after 2020. These two governments are also rejecting a legally-binding global agreement. Japan at one point threatened to pull out altogether.
The European Union has taken up a position somewhere in the middle, proposing a second commitment period to start somewhere around 2015. The EU also says this is on condition that other polluters – such as fast-growing China – are brought on board.
“We have committed under Kyoto and we have actually over achieved in the first commitment period,” said Connie Hedegaard, the European Commissioner for Climate Action. “But Europe only accounts for 11 percent of global emissions and that is why we are saying two things. We are ready to agree a second commitment period even though the family of countries who are ready to do so is shrinking; however we need reassurance that if we lay down a bridge to the future, then others will follow.”
The Congolese chair of the Africa Group, Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, says it’s hard to understand why the developed countries are behaving as they are.
“They says they want rules on climate change, but they don’t like the Kyoto Protocol. It’s hard to comprehend. If you want the mango, then you have to like the mango tree also,” he said. “If you want the carbon markets to continue, you must have robust transparent rules to continue – you have to keep the mango tree (binding emissions reduction agreements).”
He said the Africa Group is looking to the rich countries which have enjoyed a certain level of development at the cost of everyone’s atmosphere to now show leadership on climate change.
“They have shown us economic leadership, they have shown us political leadership and sometimes even military leadership, so let’s see them show us climate leadership.”
The pessimsism expressed by Secretary General Ban and COAST’s Chowdhury hangs over the conference venue, but some – like Paul Mafabi, a negotiator from Uganda – say it was already foregone conclusion that a deal would not be struck because of the economic crisis gripping the biggest offenders.
It’s perhaps worth remembering that small island and developing states are threatened not just by economic crisis, but by devastating and permanent disaster. And the real baseline demand of small island and developing states – measures to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and avoid devastating changes in these vulnerable states – is not even on the table.