Good cop, bad cop

2010-11-30 00:00

CANCUN, Mexico. The name conjures up technicolour images of beautiful, smiling people with splendid teeth and a just-lit Peter Stuyvesant cigarette — “the international passport to smoking pleasure” — between their well-manicured fingers.

Currently, Cancun is hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference known as Cop 16 which began yesterday and continues until December 10. Back in the nineties, having accepted that human-induced climate change is making the Earth warmer, countries got together and created the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). Since then a group known as the Conference of the Parties (Cop) meets annually to do a planet temperature take and this is the 16th of those meetings, hence Cop 16.

Last year’s Cop meeting in Copenhagen was a disaster. There were no targets, no binding agreements, and it was dubbed “Brokenhagen”. At the 11th hour, United States president Barack Obama conjured up an accord in a behind-closed-doors session with Brazil, India, China and South Africa. The accord was nothing but a facesaver delivering less than two thirds of the greenhouse gas emission cuts that are needed if we are to keep the global temperature rise below two degrees Centigrade as measured from pre-industrial levels. Nor was the accord binding.

South Africa’s involvement in this shady last-minute makeover made us more enemies than friends. Once again we were seen to be running with both the hares and the hounds: socialists when we play at home and capitalists when playing away. Not that we have anything to be proud about on the emission front — South Africa is the biggest greenhouse gas emitter on the African continent.

“We are as bad as the developed world,” said Debra Roberts, head of the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department at eThekwini Municipality (who is now in Cancun) during a lecture on climate change hosted by the Msunduzi Innovation and Development Institute (Midi) on the local campus last week. Currently, South Africa stands at number 11 in the hit parade of the top global emitters.

Post-Copenhagen, South Africa has to pull a white rabbit out of a hat in Cancun if it is to salvage any credibility ahead of hosting Cop 17 in Durban at the end of next year.

Meanwhile, delegates and commentators in Cancun are keeping their fingers crossed and top of their wish list is that this conference doesn’t see matters go further downhill after Copenhagen, which was billed as the “last chance to save the planet”.

Can we save the planet? It’s a question that can no longer be ducked. Global temperatures are rising and that two-degree target looks unlikely to be met this century.

Already the planet’s temperature rise has had visible impacts: diminishing ice sheets at the poles, erratic weather patterns, small mountain glaciers melting (think Kilimanjaro). And things are changing fast. “The North-West Passage — that fabled access between two oceans — is open for the first time in human memory,” says Roberts. “This has happened 30 years ahead of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prediction.”

Climate change deniers aside, the debate is now down to whether the change will be abrupt or gradual. Gradual sounds good. But if one uses the past history of the planet as a predictor it doesn’t look good at all. The last time there was a two to three degree temperature change was in the Pliocene era, says Roberts, and the changes were massive, including a 25-metre rise in sea levels. That means the Durban beaches will be at Camps Drift.

Hope for the future lies in absolute targets and legally binding commitments regarding greenhouse gas emissions. Will that happen in Cancun? No. And don’t expect any dramatic interventions from the U.S. With the Obama administration on the back foot to the Republicans, it’s no longer “yes, we can”, but “no, we can’t”. And the Chinese won’t sign anything either.

So what price the Kyoto Protocol, adopted by Cop 3 held in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 and which came into force in 2005? This set binding targets for reducing emissions for 37 industrialised countries and the European Union. Developing countries like China were excused as they were not considered to have contributed to global warming until recently. Now they are top of the emission charts with the U.S. at number two, who have signed but not ratified the protocol. The scene is set for these big hitters to crush the protocol — not that the targets set by the protocol will be met by the end of the first commitment period in 2012 anyway.

It’s enough to make you take up smoking.

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