COP17: Why should we bother?

By Ed King
RTCC in Durban

The city of Durban is crackling with excitement ahead of the start of the COP17 climate summit. Our arrival at King Shaka airport was an assault on the senses, with Zulu Warriors, banners, flags and volunteers with beaming smiles welcoming us to South Africa.

It’s the biggest event in this part of the world since the 2010 Football World Cup, but unlike that tournament, which was a joyous celebration of the Rainbow Nation – and the Vuvuzela – there’s a darker undercurrent.

Away from the dancers, posters and legion of companies proclaiming their questionable low-carbon credentials (even Eskom, SA electricity providers and heavy coal users are on the case) there is a deeply important element to these talks.

A recent report from the IEA stated the planet has five years to avoid ‘irreversible climate change’. If we continue on the same trajectory it warned there would be ‘no room for manoeuvre by 2017’.

Such strong words from a respected institution need an equally forceful response. Critics may deride Durban as a waste of time and money, but the climate change debate touches every single aspect of our lives – across the planet – no matter whether we live in the developed or developing world.

The price of what we eat, wear and even drink is affected by the changing weather. In the UK our supermarkets are stocked with food and delicacies from areas of the world that will suffer from climate change: Africa, Latin America, and the Far East.

When they stop producing for us what will we do? And if their countries become too inhospitable for humans – where will they live? The immigration debate is already toxic in the UK. Imagine what pressures the desertification of vast tracts of Africa might impose on Europe?

Climate change is also becoming a huge concern for business. A coalition of the world’s largest investors, with funds totalling $20 Trillion, recently joined forces to remind governments around the world of their responsibility to the climate.

Meanwhile drought in China and floods in Pakistan were contributing factors to cotton prices soaring in 2008 – bringing the effects home to companies like Levis – who have called on the US Senate to pass climate legislation proposed by President Barack Obama.

It is an economic, political and humanitarian struggle, and all those aspects must and will be considered when negotiators start their long sessions on Monday morning.

Despite the bold statements from commentators on every side of the spectrum, there are no easy answers. For many developing countries like South Africa fossil fuels remain a cheap and effective way of supplying power to their growing populations.

Try telling President Jacob Zuma he should close down his coal plants and risk blackouts across the country. The dangers of civil unrest are too great, and the lure of economic growth too strong.

And yet the low-carbon economy promises much to South Africa. It has a steady supply of sunshine that could generate vast quantities of solar power, and an enormous coastline offering potential for marine and wind turbine investment.

While much of the next two weeks will focus on the potential for disaster, so too we should look to what we might achieve with a transition away from carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

As the respected environmental commentator Mark Lynas notes in his recent book The God Species: ‘From being concerned that cutting carbon emissions will damage competitiveness, many governments are beginning to see going low-carbon as the very engine of future growth and competitiveness they are looking for’.

There is no doubt a negotiation with nearly 200 parties, each with delegations of up to 100 negotiators, represents a huge technical and logistical challenge, which some believe is simply insurmountable.

Stories of subterfuge, rage and backstabbing are legion – you only have to look at how President Barack Obama was out-manouevred by China during the 2009 Copenhagen summit to see how even the big beasts struggle in this environment.

And yet the world has returned for more – and judging by the warm embraces between delegates at the Conference Centre this morning – spirits remain high.

The fact all states have sent delegations gives the talks their credibility. Just like the Olympics, all nations are represented, and all are given a chance to make their case.

A former UK Ambassador recently told me that the whole process should be ‘scrapped’, with the top 20 countries in the world left to work out what should be done about emissions.

I think that is missing the point. Climate change is too big an issue for 20 states to come to a cosy deal. Politically and economically it affects every member of the human race.

To quote Henry Kissinger, father of Realpolitik: “To try to deal with the fate of nations without looking at the circumstances with which they have to deal is escapism. The art of good foreign policy is to understand and to take into consideration the values of a society, to realize them at the outer limit of the possible.”

Ignoring the rest of the world would be foolish escapism. We have seen what happens when small groups of states form ‘coalitions of the willing’ and ignore the cacophony of protest from the outside world. Climate change affects us all, and as a result everyone must come to the table.

Few commentators believe a major deal is on the cards. The UK’s lead climate diplomat John Ashton told me last week there was a danger in treating each COP like a cup final – it adds to many unrealistic expectations, and also suggests there will be a winner, and a loser.

A realistic ambition is another small step towards a more efficient and equitable global economy. Surely that’s not a waste of time?

RTCC will bring you full coverage of the first day of COP17. Follow @RTCCnewswire for updates from day one in Durban. @rtcc_tierney will be at the #occupyCOP17 protests, @rtcc_john will be in the main plenary session reporting on the opening speeches, while @rtcc_edk will be tweeting updates from the Climate Change TV studio.


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