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The Occupation of COP17 was Inevitable

Today, the planet is entering a period of consequences. If allowed to proceed unchecked, climate change will exact a huge cost in terms of human life and our economies.
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It is the last day of negotiations at COP17, in Durban. Soon we will know whether world leaders have stepped up to the challenge of combating the threat of catastrophic climate change or if they have failed us, and future generations. As I write protesters have occupied the ICC. Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace, was removed in plastic handcuffs. According to Twitter, a protester was taken out of the conference in wheelchairs. This is where things stand, as I board my flight back to London.

The Occupation of COP17 was inevitable. I have been in Durban for eight days, attending the conference. Expectations among delegates and NGOs have been low. There is a sense of foreboding about the outcome of the conference and about the UNFCCC process. Some rich countries seem intent on selling our future -- and the futures of our children and grandchildren -- down the river. There were some rousing speeches on Tuesday at the opening of the high level segment, by UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon, South African President Jacob Zuma and Chistiana Figueres, head of the UNFCCC-- but to no avail, since a legally binding global climate agreement still seems beyond reach.

There is a clear disconnect between the science and the UNFCCC climate negotiations. Scientific fact is being ignored by politicians who are putting their short term agendas before the survival of humankind. I am not being alarmist. The situation is alarming.

Some government leaders continue to disregard the scale of the threat, despite the warnings from our most respected scientists which are loud and clear. We have less than a decade to address the issue of climate change before we reach the "tipping point," or the point of no return. The earth is perilously close to dramatic climate change that threatens to spiral way out of control. Scientists now generally accept that even pledges of 20% greenhouse gas emission reductions by 2020 are inadequate given the gravity of the current situation.

Science requires that we keep the global temperature rise to under 2 degrees Celsius. To achieve this, according to the Oxford Climate Group, "developed countries must cut their emissions by at least 25-40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020." The levels of voluntary pledges under the 2009 Copenhagen Accord (at the lower end of their ranges) "suggest that they will have either increased their emissions by 6 per cent, or (at the upper end) reduced them by 16 per cent." This is not good enough. Leaders must do better at COP17. The UK Met office released a report on Tuesday the 6th of December, which forecast global temperature would rise between three and five degrees Celsius this century if emissions are left unchecked. Alongside the predictions of the Oxford Climate Group, these figures make ominous reading.

Global climate expert Professor James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and adjunct Professor of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is emphatic about the urgency of reducing CO2 levels, stressing the fact that "the safe upper limit for atmospheric CO2 is no more than 350 ppm."

A level of 450 ppm is not far off; we are close to fulfilling this prophecy. As of today the planet has concentrations of around 397 parts carbon dioxide molecules per million.

Professor Hansen is unequivocal: "A level of 450 ppm has generally been associated with an average global temperature rise of two degrees C. However, the latest analysis shows that a level of 450 ppm is enough to melt a significant portion of the world's ice, because feedback mechanisms kick in; melting ice hastens the melting of even more ice, for example, and thawing permafrost emits methane that accelerates warming, prompting permafrost to thaw even more."

Hansen explained at a press conference at the American Geophysical Union on the 5th of December, that even the target reductions may not be enough. "The target of 2 degrees Celsius... is a prescription for long-term disaster," he said. "You can't say exactly what long term is but we are beginning to see signs of slow [climate] feedbacks beginning to come into play. Ice sheets are beginning to lose mass and methane hydrates are to some degree beginning to bubble out of melting permafrost. We should be aiming to keep CO2 no higher than about 350ppm and possibly somewhat less... if we want to maintain stable ice sheets and shorelines and avoid many other issues." Hansen's message to the world leaders at COP17 in Durban is: "If the world waits until 2020 to begin, it will need to reduce CO2 by 15 percent a year to reach 350 ppm. We are out of time."

Have the leaders who oppose the extension of a second period for the Kyoto Protocol, and who want to postpone a legally binding global climate agreement until 2020, not been briefed? Have these findings not made their way to the negotiating table at COP17? As Kelly Rigg observes, in the Guardian, "It's not rocket science: when you find yourself at the bottom of a deep hole, the first thing you need to do is stop digging. That simple logic, however, is utterly lacking here at the international climate negotiations in Durban."

We have already reached the stage of dangerous climate change. The task now is to prevent irreversible climate chaos. We urgently need a legally binding global climate agreement. Waiting until 2015 or worse until 2020, the so-called 'dirty number,' would be reckless. It is not an option. What is at stake is our future and that of future generations. There is no room and no time for political squabbling, or point scoring. At this critical juncture in history we will either stand, or fall together. As Christiana Figueres, head of the UNFCCC says,"There is no plan B, just as there is no planet B."


The Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The treaty was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, on 11 December 1997 and is due to expire in 2012.

Some nations: Japan, Russia, Canada, India, and the US in particular, are against an extension of the agreement. Developing nations, who are most at risk from climate change, are rightly outraged that wealthy countries are conspiring to kill Kyoto. The treaty may not be not perfect but it is the only legally binding international instrument which requires rich countries to lower emissions.

The USA has never ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Canada not only opposed renewal, but has stated that they will withdraw from the Protocol altogether, which could be a death blow for the agreement.

China, the world's largest emitter, is not a party to the Kyoto Protocol since it was considered a developing nation when the treaty was negotiated. China remains ambiguous about its aims regarding extending Kyoto. Their cooperation would be conditional on other nations fulfilling their pledges. Xie Zhenhua, head of the Chinese delegation in Durban, is quoted by the Guardian: "China was happy to talk to the EU and others, but said that the richest countries should meet existing obligations to cut emissions, enshrined in the Kyoto protocol, and shoulder the burden of cuts..."

The blame game is being played at COP17. Connie Hedegaard, European climate change commissioner ascribed the COP's lack of progress to a stand-off, a 'ping pong' match' between the US and China.

It's easy to blame China, now the largest global emitter, for the deadlock.

The US, until 2006, was the largest emitter in the world, and is now the second largest. America has signed but never ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

China ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, but is exempt from its legally binding targets. Between 2006 and 2010, China reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 1.5 billion tons, the biggest decrease of any country in the period.

According to a report by the Energy Information Administration, the USA also cut emissions by 7% between 2008 and 2009. However, as the Guardian newspaper points out, the data can be read several ways: the US currently remains "number one in terms of per capita emissions among the big economies -- with 18 tonnes emitted per person."

The Kyoto Protocol must be extended for a second period. Failure to extend the treaty will leave a vacuum. Between 2012, when the current period ends and the signing of a new legally binding global climate agreement, countries will be under no legal obligation to reduce emissions. In an already critical global climate situation, this would be a death sentence for many nations.


Old arguments resurfaced in discussions this week, regarding differentiated responsibility, and specifically whether China, with its "21.5 million rural population live below the official 'absolute poverty' line (approximately $90 per year); an additional 35.5 million rural population live above that level but below the official 'low income' line (approximately $125 per year)," qualifies as a developing country. China and Britain clashed over this issue, the UK claiming, "China clearly cannot say it's a small developing country. Its so big, it is a global player."

The negotiators have split roughly into two camps over the course of the conference. The EU, along with the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis) and Least Developed Countries (LDCs), brokered by Denmark and Gambia, is urging a second period of commitment to the Kyoto Protocol. The EU has once more taken the lead as defender of the treaty.

This group is also insistent that any future agreement be legally binding across the board. In a positive step today, at the eleventh hour, Brazil and South Africa joined what is being called the Climate Alliance. Together this faction represents more than half the world's governments.

The US, Canada and a number of big developing countries including China and India want negotiations to start in 2015 at the earliest, and not come into effect until after 2020. This, needless to say, is too late. China, India and the US, among others, have thrown obstacles and conditions in the way of a "legally binding" accord in the future. Several US environmental groups have accused their country of blocking negotiations at COP17. It has been apparent to everyone present from NGOs to high level negotiators that the US arrived in Durban with an agenda. As the Guardian puts it, 'The US came to Durban with a mission to prevent any new commitments before 2020."

During my time at COP17, the most meaningful and passionate intervention came from Middlebury college student Abigail Borah, who is attending the conference as a representative of the International Youth Climate Movement.

As top U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern took the stage yesterday, December 8th, to address the U.N. summit for the first time, Ms Brorah stood up, and addressed Mr Stern. "I am speaking on behalf of the United States of America because my negotiators cannot," she said. "The obstructionist Congress has shackled justice and delayed ambition for far too long. I am scared for my future. 2020 is too late to wait. We need an urgent path to a fair, ambitious and legally binding treaty. You must take responsibility to act now."

After Ms Borah was ejected from the room, Mr Stern said, 'It is completely off base to suggest that the U.S. is proposing that we delay action until 2020... a misperception.' As the New York Times remarked, "His language was somewhat convoluted, but he said that the European Union had called for a road map "that the U.S. supports."

In terms of derailing the negotiations, the U.S. is the culprit. America has hijacked the last three COPs. At COP 15 in Copenhagen, for instance, where all other countries based their emission reduction pledges relative to 1990 levels, the US and Canada framed their pledges in deceptive terms, offering to reduce emissions by 17% relative to 2005 levels. This amounts to a mere 3.2 reduction relative to 1990 levels. Obama effectively set the bar for emission cuts pledges, and set it very low. No country was prepared to offer bigger reductions when the second highest emitter in the world refused to budge.

It is exactly this kind of hijacking of the talks on the part of the US which has encouraged countries such as Canada to drop out of Kyoto. I am concerned that America's policy of isolationism will cost us our future.


The idea for the Green Climate Fund was brought up at COP15. I had serious doubts at the time about the financing. In an article I wrote for UNIDO magazine, I said:

"The Copenhagen Accord contains a promise by the developed world: to pay the developing world US$30 billion of "climate aid" over the next three years, with the aim of increasing this amount to US$100 billion a year from 2020. As Professor James Hansen, put it, "The hundred billion dollars a year -- the money that Secretary of State Clinton claimed the United States would raise to give to developing countries -- is vapor money. There's no mechanism for such financing to actually occur, and no expectation that it will."

At COP 16 in Cancun, the formation of a green climate fund was approved. The fund aims to channel up to $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing nations. It would be, potentially, the largest ever transfer of funds from the developed to the developing world.

Some of my concerns from Copenhagen persist. We need strong, innovative mechanisms for raising the funds. We must ensure that the money materialises, that this is not "vapor money." As was remarked on the 7th of December at the session "Mobilising Long-Term Finance for Developing Countries: 'You cannot have a fund without funding.'"

Ban ki Moon warned, "Governments must find ways -- now -- to mobilise resources up to the $100bn per annum as pledged...The fund needs to be launched in Durban. An empty shell is not sufficient. Even in this difficult time we cannot afford the delay."

It is vital to determine the sources of funding; fully involve the private sector and civil society, and achieve a balanced allocation of financial resources between adaptation and mitigation.

Lord Stern has been clear that the fund is a viable prospect. "In addition to cutting out fossil fuel subsidies... developed countries could raise the remainder needed from carbon taxes, the auction of permits to emit carbon, levies on international transport and loans from international development banks would all be needed. The sums involved would be affordable if countries put the right policies in place," he said. "It is all eminently doable."

Lord Stern laid out some guidelines for the governance of the fund on Wednesday December 7th. A key point is that the fund must have enshrined in its mandate the capacity for expansion. Because, as commentators have noted, $100 billion is "not enough" to address mitigations and adaptation in developing countries.

Lord Stern's refrain, delivered repeatedly and publicly at COP 17, is "No more reports please. What we need now is the political will." I could not agree more. The fund must go ahead despite the difficult economic climate, despite the Eurozone crisis. You cannot put a price on the future existence of life on earth.


REDD, or Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Degradation, is crucial to any legally binding global climate agreement. As the Stern Review demonstrated, conserving and protecting our forests, particularly the rainforest, is vital to reducing CO2 emissions.

Discussions on REDD have been painful. Today, on the last day of the conference. there is still no firm indication of how these talks are progressing.

REDD has the potential to be a pillar of a climate change agreement. The scheme has vast potential for mitigation, and adaptation. However, stringent safeguards and governance must be in place, to avoid exploitation, and abuses of the system. As Raja Jarrah, CARE's Senior Advisor on REDD, said last week,: "The outcome on REDD safeguards is a step backwards from what was agreed in Cancun last year, which itself was far short of what could have been agreed in Copenhagen. The provisions for safeguards in forest conservation are being shredded. This is bad news for millions of indigenous people and local communities whose livelihoods depend on forests."

The Cancun Agreement on REDD states that provided that there is adequate and predictable support to developing countries, all countries should collectively aim to slow, halt and reverse forest cover and carbon loss by reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. It also provides safeguards, of three types: social, environmental and governance. It is imperative that these safeguards are addressed and respected throughout the implementation of REDD activities. The following REDD safeguards must be promoited, and supported, as part of any climate treaty.

(a) That actions complement or are consistent with the objectives of national forest programmes and relevant international conventions and agreements;


(b) Transparent and effective national forest governance structures, taking into account national legislation and sovereignty;


(c) Respect for the knowledge and rights of indigenous peoples and members of local communities, by taking into account relevant international obligations, national circumstances and laws, and noting that the United Nations General Assembly has adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;

(d) The full and effective participation of relevant stakeholders, in particular indigenous peoples and local communities.


(e) That actions are consistent with the conservation of natural forests and biological diversity, ensuring that the actions referred to in paragraph 70 of this decision are not used for the conversion of natural forests, but are instead used to incentivize the protection and conservation of natural forests and their ecosystem services, and to enhance other social and environmental benefits;


(f) Actions to address the risks of reversals;

(g) Actions to reduce displacement of emissions.

Any financing for REDD must be linked to these safeguards. Countries aiming to obtain REDD money must demonstrate how they will address them. The rights of indigenous leaders and communities must be protected, and respected. Biodiversity must be protected.

Any REDD agreement must close the loopholes which undermine emissions reduction and integrity of targets, says Donald Lehr, from the advocacy group Ecosystems Climate Alliance. The Subsidiary Body of Science and Technology Advice, (SBSTA) must establish reference levels -- to determine how we measure emissions in developing countries which are based on fact, and that will truthfully reflect actual emissions reduction, to ensure that countries are really reducing emissions through REDD.

It would be a travesty to move away from or weaken the Cancun agreements.


As the end of the COP approaches, I am reminded of the speech Winston Churchill gave to the House of Commons on 12 November 1936, as war loomed over Europe: "The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences." Today, the whole planet is entering a period of consequences. If allowed to proceed unchecked, climate change will exact a huge cost in terms of human life, and on our economies.

Let's listen to Abigail Borah's pleas. 'We need an urgent path to a fair, ambitious and legally binding treaty.' The time for further excuses, postponement, for hesitation and prevarication has long passed. Now is the time for decision-makers to take concrete steps to avert climate catastrophe; the time for courage and leadership, and for positive and immediate action.

If by the end COP 17 there is no extension of the Kyoto Protocol, and no structure and governance in place for the Green Climate Fund, if countries do not agree to a legally binding global climate treaty, it will be an appalling abdication of responsibility. The rich nations and leaders will have sacrificed our future and that of the planet on the altar of their own selfish short term interest.

It is developing countries which will suffer first, and most, from the catastrophic effects of climate change. But let me be very clear: they are not the only ones who will suffer. We in the developed world will suffer too. Everyone, everywhere will be affected by climate change, in every nation and from every socio economic group, in hundreds of ways: from the pollution of cities to erosion in rural areas; from contamination of the oceans and rivers to desertification; from mass migration to overcrowded cities and the security of individuals and states.

If the US government chooses not to join with the rest of the world in our struggle to ensure a future for life on earth ... so be it. Other countries should, and must find a unified vision through which to put their houses in order, and combat the threat of climate change.

As Christiana Figueres, head of the UNFCCC rightly says, what we are calling for here, at COP 17, is nothing less than a revolution. A revolution in how we live, eat, think, work, travel. We far outnumber those politicians who would jeopardise the future of humanity. We are the 99%. As such, we must all be accountable. We don't have to go like lambs to the slaughter. Like the protesters in the ICC, we must stand up for our rights, and for the rights of our children and grandchildren.

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