“You’ve been negotiating all my life,” Anjali Appadurai told the plenary session of the U.N.‘s 17th “Conference of Parties,” or COP 17, the official title of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa. Appadurai, a student at the ecologically focused College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, addressed the plenary as part of the youth delegation. She continued: “In that time, you’ve failed to meet pledges, you’ve missed targets, and you’ve broken promises. But you’ve heard this all before.”
After she finished her address, she moved to the side of the podium, off microphone, and in a manner familiar to anyone who has attended an Occupy protest, shouted into the vast hall of staid diplomats, “Mic check!” A crowd of young people stood up, and the call-and-response began:
Appadurai: “Equity now!”
Crowd: “Equity now!”
Appadurai: “You’ve run out of excuses!”
Crowd: “You’ve run out of excuses!”
Appadurai: “We’re running out of time!”
Crowd: “We’re running out of time!”
Appadurai: “Get it done!”
Crowd: “Get it done!”
That was Friday, at the official closing plenary session of COP 17. The negotiations were extended, virtually nonstop, through Sunday, in hopes of avoiding complete failure. At issue were arguments over words and phrases—for instance, the replacement of “legal agreement” with “an agreed outcome with legal force,” which is said to have won over India to the Durban Platform.
The countries in attendance agreed to a schedule that would lead to an agreement by 2015, which would commit all countries to reduce emissions starting no sooner than 2020, eight years into the future.
“Eight years from now is a death sentence on Africa,” Nigerian environmentalist Nnimmo Bassey, chairperson of Friends of the Earth International, told me. “For every one-degree Celsius change in temperature, Africa is impacted at a heightened level.” He lays out the extent of the immediate threats in his new book about Africa, “To Cook a Continent.”
Bassey is one among many concerned with the profound lack of ambition embodied in the Durban Platform, which delays actual, legally binding reductions in emissions until 2020 at the earliest, whereas scientists globally are in overwhelming agreement: The stated goal of limiting average global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) will soon be impossible to achieve. The International Energy Agency, in its annual World Energy Outlook released in November, predicted “cumulative CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions over the next 25 years amount to three-quarters of the total from the past 110 years, leading to a long-term average temperature rise of 3.5 [degrees] C.”
Despite optimistic pronouncements to the contrary, many believe the Kyoto Protocol died in Durban. Pablo Solon, the former Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations and former chief climate negotiator for that poor country, now calls Kyoto a “zombie agreement,” staggering forward for another five or seven years, but without force or impact. On the day after the talks concluded, Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent announced that Canada was formally withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol. Expected to follow are Russia and Japan, the very nation where the 1997 meeting was held that gives the Kyoto Protocol its name.
The largest polluter in world history, the United States, never ratified the Kyoto Protocol and remains defiant. Both Bassey and Solon refer to the outcome of Durban as a form of “climate apartheid.”
Despite the pledges by President Barack Obama to restore the United States to a position of leadership on the issue of climate change, the trajectory from Copenhagen in 2009, to Cancun in 2010, and, now, to Durban reinforces the statement made by then-President George H.W. Bush prior to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the forerunner to the Kyoto Protocol, when he said, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.”
The “American way of life” can be measured in per capita emissions of carbon. In the U.S., on average, about 20 metric tons of CO2 is released into the atmosphere annually, one of the top 10 on the planet. Hence, a popular sticker in Durban read “Stop CO2lonialism.”
By comparison, China, the country that is the largest emitter currently, has per capita emissions closer to 5 metric tons, ranking it about 80th. India’s population emits a meager 1.5 tons per capita, a fraction of the U.S. level.
So it seems U.S. intransigence, its unwillingness to get off its fossil-fuel addiction, effectively killed Kyoto in Durban, a key city in South Africa’s fight against apartheid. That is why Anjali Appadurai’s closing words were imbued with a sense of hope brought by this new generation of climate activists:
“[Nelson] Mandela said, ‘It always seems impossible, until it’s done.’ So, distinguished delegates and governments around the world, governments of the developed world, deep cuts now. Get it done.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.