Time for a new geopolitical climate bloc

Durban could be a wake-up call for those who believed that Brazil would become a catalyst for environmental change.

copenhagen climate summit
Many environmentalists are critical of the outcome of recent climate change negotiations in Durban [GALLO/GETTY]

For some time now, the world has been subjected to the tragic, Kabuki-like display of political leaders announcing that reaching a significant climate deal is impossible and will have to wait until the next summit. The recently concluded climate conference held in Durban, South Africa, also known as COP-17, averted a full scale disaster, but failed to deliver on a meaningful deal.  

Significantly, the battle lines are now becoming clearer, with the 27-member European Union or EU, the 39-member AOSIS or Alliance of Small Island Nations and the Least Developed Countries or LDCs [a 48-country bloc comprised of such drought-prone states as Ethiopia and Mali, coastal nations such as Bangladesh and Tanzania and other countries concerned about disappearing glaciers including Bhutan and Nepal] pushing for a positive agreement. On the other hand, the US and big emerging emitters have sought to shirk their responsibilities. Perhaps, Durban could be a harbinger of things to come as the more progressive countries line up to craft a new geopolitical order.  

At times, it seemed as if Durban would become an utter fiasco. At issue no less was the future of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, under which some three dozen rich nations agreed to reduce greenhouse gases by varying amounts by 2012. By next year, that is to say, the end of the so-called “first commitment period” which originally began in 2008, the preliminary round of emissions cuts is scheduled to end.  

China and India, which have no obligations under Kyoto, have supported a second commitment period which would enact deeper cuts, while wealthier countries seek to shift the blame by getting emerging economies to accept parallel legal obligations. Needless to say, Washington has opposed any extension of the Protocol’s first commitment period. That is not too surprising given that the US failed to ratify Kyoto in the first place, with former President George W Bush arguing that the agreement did not impose emissions limits on emerging industrialised nations.   

The Kyoto regime
Though developed countries have been skittish about Kyoto, the point is that the agreement may not go far enough: the treaty only calls on countries to reduce their emissions in order to prevent an increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This may be literally playing with fire, as researchers warn that the earth will experience runaway climate change if we surpass the crucial two degree tipping point.  

Already, the planet has warmed 0.8 degrees Celsius or 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels. Small island nations insist that governments must limit warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst ravages of climate change, while even scientists concede that just a modest one degree Celsius or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit rise in temperature could have devastating consequences for African farmers as drought eats up the corn harvest.   

At Copenhagen, the Obama White House… agreed to a dangerous two degree Celsius tempurature rise… overriding the concerns of small island nations and African countries.

Whatever its flaws, Kyoto provides the international community with a fundamental framework for dealing with the climate crisis, and since the signing of the lackluster Copenhagen conference of 2010, also known as COP-15, the need for a binding agreement has never been greater.

At Copenhagen, the Obama White House joined with China and Brazil and agreed to a dangerous two degree Celsius temperature rise above pre-industrial levels, thus overriding the concerns of small island nations and African countries.
What is more, countries also failed to spell out how reductions in greenhouse gases would be achieved and needless to say the agreement was non-binding. Neither did COP-16, a 2010 climate conference held in Cancun, Mexico, help to alleviate poor nations’ concerns. In Cancun, countries agreed to voluntary cuts in emissions by 2020, but scientists claim the reductions will not be enough to keep global temperatures from increasing by less than two degrees Celsius.  

Durban’s geopolitical legacy

Traditionally, it has been the US which constitutes the greatest obstacle in climate change negotiations by providing a bad example for the rest of the world, but now the battle lines have become more complex with other emerging emitters seeking to shirk their responsibilities too.

Far from exhibiting any Third World solidarity, China and India have conspired with the US to thwart the EU, itself a rather lackluster group of countries from a climate perspective, but nevertheless more progressive than most. The EU, which is a signatory to Kyoto, pushed hard for a new and legally binding treaty at Durban, much to the chagrin of China and India. Worsening the impasse, the Americans stated they would only make binding cuts if all major polluters made comparable commitments.  
Surprisingly, however, Durban did not wind up scrapping Kyoto and the recent conference may have even improved matters. After two weeks of contentious negotiations, more than 190 nations agreed to work toward a future treaty which would oblige all countries to reduce their emissions. In accordance with the deal, Kyoto will be renewed for several more years under another commitment period. In addition, participants agreed to start a process for replacing the treaty with a system which treats all nations equally. It’s an important step, and goes a long way toward dismantling the older, anachronistic system whereby emerging emitters could escape the necessary binding commitments.  
On the other hand, Durban will surely prove unsatisfying to many. While the conference kept the negotiating process alive, some observers said that new measures would not have a significant impact on climate change. Conveniently, some of the legal language was kept somewhat vague so as to keep heavyweight polluting countries on board. In the first draft, parties agreed to a mere “legal framework”. When that wording proved displeasing and vague to more progressive countries, the draft was changed to “legal instrument”, implying a more binding agreement.  
Crucially, many important details are still left up in the air, such as when the agreement would come into force. Countries agreed to set up a working group which would draw up a cuts regime by 2015 and move to enforcement by 2020, but environmentalists say negotiators failed to cut emissions by levels that would limit temperature rise to no more than two degrees Celsius. In addition, environmentalists fear that the 2020 date would be too late and push the earth over the brink. In essence, they add, Durban merely amounts to a voluntary deal that’s put off for a decade.

From a geopolitical perspective, Durban proved illuminating. When a disappointing and modest draft proposal emerged from discussions, island states, the EU, LCDs (least developed countries) and African nations launched a rebellion, thereby putting the US and large emerging emitters in a diplomatic quandary.

As usual, Venezuela was defiant with the nation’s ambassador standing on a chair and banging her nameplate as she accused the United Nations of ignoring poor countries. In the end, Brazil was obliged to broker a compromise between the EU and India. A huddle between the three led to the adoption of the particular “legal instrument” wording. South Africa, eager to avoid an embarrassment, drew up the new proposal to prevent talks from collapsing.

BASICally spineless

I once believed that Brazil might become a champion on climate change. The country’s dynamic youth has become increasingly environmentally conscious, and in the run-up to the last presidential election, Green Party candidate Marina Silva garnered a very respectable 19 per cent of the vote. Whatever the changing politics, however, it seems that agribusiness and oil interests are winning out over Brazil’s progressive political constituencies.

Indeed, during the Copenhagen conference, Brazil frustrated the hopes of many by joining forces with China, India and South Africa to form the BASIC group to limit greenhouse gas reductions. At Copenhagen, Brazil helped draft a lackluster accord along with 29 other countries, but principally the US and BASIC.  

Incredibly, however, even after pushing for a watered down agreement at Copenhagen, Brazil and BASIC dragged their feet when it came time to meeting climate goals and needless to say, the group could not come up with their own specific proposals on emissions reductions to be presented at Cancun. In a familiar pattern, BASIC even went so far as to argue that no legally binding deal could be struck until Durban.  
To be sure, Brazil ultimately supported EU proposals at COP-17. However, Durban may prove to be a wake-up call for those who believed that the South American juggernaut would become a catalyst for change. Though Brazil is scheduled to host a United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012, called Rio+20, the country seems to have relinquished the idea of becoming an environmental leader, choosing instead to develop oil resources and relax ecological standards through a reform of the Forestry Code.  

Brazilian cynicism has not gone unnoticed by small Pacific and Caribbean states, some of which are low-lying and vulnerable to sea level rise. At Copenhagen, the group expressed reservations about BASIC’s climate change plan which stood to expose islands to rising sea levels. In a shot across Brazil’s bow, the small island nation of Tuvalu proposed opening discussions on a legally binding agreement to the Kyoto Protocol which would set greenhouse gas emissions targets for emerging economies starting in 2013.
Tuvalu’s move, which was backed by dozens of the poorest countries exposed to climate change, including the Cook Islands, Barbados, Fiji and some African nations such as Sierra Leone, Senegal and Cape Verde, constituted a serious breach within the G-77 united front.

A coalition of more than 130 developing nations, the G-77 group may be headed for a crack-up as it includes many of the world’s poorest countries but also China, India and Brazil. In an effort to preserve its somewhat tarnished image, Brazil has invited some G-77 representatives to attend BASIC meetings as observers in an effort to foster a so-called “BASIC plus” bloc.
The role of firebrand Bolivia

Despite Brazilian shortcomings, South America still has a left-leaning bloc of countries which could conceivably make a difference in climate negotiations. In recent years, the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas, also known as ALBA, has vigorously taken up the cause of climate justice.

“American diplomats sought to ‘neutralise, co-opt or marginalise’ radical Latin American nations which were advocating for deeper cuts in carbon emissions.

– Secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks

Comprised of such nations as Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador, the group has sought to shame the US and others into taking more collective action. Ringleader Evo Morales, who was particularly opposed to the Copenhagen deal, wants to limit any increase in world climate change to less than one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit).
It’s no secret that the US sees Morales as an irritant. According to secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, American diplomats sought to “neutralise, co-opt or marginalise” radical Latin American nations which were advocating deeper cuts in carbon emissions. Later, Washington even punished Bolivia for its outspokenness by suspending climate aid programmes to the poor Andean nation. What is more disconcerting to learn, however, is that Brazil joined China in an effort to rein in Morales.  

Apparently undeterred, Bolivia has proposed a tax on financial transactions which would go toward mitigating climate change, and has reached out to other geopolitical blocs such as the African Group and the LDCs. Perhaps, however, Morales is feeling the pinch and has given second thought to leading the charge on climate change. At Durban, the Bolivian delegation was headed by Rene Orellana, the country’s former environment and water minister. Orellana replaced Pablo Solon, formerly Bolivia’s chief negotiator and ambassador to the United Nations.  

As UN ambassador, Solon was a firebrand, spearheading successful resolutions on the human right to water, “International Mother Earth Day”, and the rights of indigenous peoples. In early 2010, Solon helped to initiate the World People’s Conference on Climate Change in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, and later that year, he was the sole voice opposing the Cancun agreements at COP-16. In contrast to Solon, Orellana is said to favour a more moderate and softer approach on climate change issues.

Left bloc difficulties

Furthermore, it’s unclear whether ALBA is a grouping which can advance meaningful change. With a big question mark still hanging over the health of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, it’s unclear whether the bloc will last. What is more, even if he does overcome his health problems, Chavez may face a difficult re-election campaign next year.

In addition, because ALBA is a small bloc and does not include the likes of Brazil, it carries little geopolitical heft. There is abundant evidence from secret WikiLeaks cables that Brazil views its South American leftist neighbours with a degree of condescension, if not outright disdain, and this friction could make it more difficult to develop a more progressive climate change agenda.

Moreover, though ALBA nations certainly deserve a lot of credit for raising the profile of climate justice at international conferences, the bloc’s leaders have not always adhered to ideal ecological standards. Take for example Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, whose government sought to shut down the offices of a local environmental organisation, and then, perversely, called indigenous peoples “infantile” when they protested unfair mining and petroleum laws.  

Part Two of Nikolas Kozloff’s “Durban’s Legacy: Time for a new geopolitical climate bloc” which focuses on Europe, Africa and the Middle East to follow.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.