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Copenhagen And The Quest For Climate Justice

The March To Copenhagen And Quest For Climate Justice

By Ondotimi Songi And Timipere Songi

FROM December 7-18, more than 15,000 people including Government officials and advisers from 192 nations, civil society and the media from nearly every country in the world, will come together in the Danish capital, Copenhagen in one of the most significant gatherings in history. Copenhagen or COP 15 - the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) - is negotiating future plans and agreements for countries to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as their current commitments under the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. The meeting – which would in the last three days include major heads of state, will attempt to reach a massively complex agreement on cutting carbon, providing finance for mitigation and adaptation, and supporting technology transfer from the North to the South. Two years ago, at a previous UN climate conference in Bali, all UN governments agreed on a timetable that would ensure a strong climate deal by the time of the Copenhagen conference. The world hopes for and seeks climate justice calling for a fair, ambitious and binding deal at the meeting as the implications of not achieving this goal are massive, and nearly unthinkable. But little is known about climate change and its harmful impacts on humanity especially in developing countries including Nigeria.

Climate change simply means a long-term alteration in global weather patterns especially increase in temperature and storm activity, regarded as potential consequence of the greenhouse effect. Scientists believe Earth is currently facing a period of rapid warming brought on by rising levels of heat-trapping gases, known as greenhouse gases (GHG), in the atmosphere. GHG retain the radiant energy (heat) provided to Earth by the Sun in a process known as the greenhouse effect. GHG occur naturally, and without them the planet would be too cold to sustain life as we know it. However, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s human activities have added more and more of these gases into the atmosphere. For example, levels of carbon dioxide, a powerful GHG, have risen largely from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. With more GHG in the mix, the atmosphere acts like a thickening blanket and traps more heat.

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Climate change is thus said to be anthropogenic (caused by humans) and the resultant effects of all of these are a melting polar ice and glaciers; warming of the oceans; rising sea levels leading to floods, erosions, storms, etc; damage to food crops disrupting food production; plants and animals seeking cooler temperatures leading to extinction of some animals; ocean acidity leading to damage in the ocean’s ecosystem; increase in sickness and diseases; deforestation, drought, etc. Climate change will, in short, have immense human consequences. The potential consequences are so great that many of the world’s leading scientist, environmentalists, civil society organisations, politicians, business leaders, and other citizens—are calling for international cooperation and immediate action to counteract the problem.

But as President Mohamed Nasheed of Maldives rightly observed at the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) held at Maldives, “when we look around the world today, there are few countries showing moral leadership on climate change. There are plenty of politicians willing to point the finger of blame. But there are few prepared to help solve a crisis that, left unchecked, will consume us all. Few countries are willing to discuss the scale of emissions reductions required to save the planet”.

The move to address this imminent catastrophe has been tortuous. The first international conference addressing the issue was held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, informally known as the Earth Summit, 150 countries pledged to confront the problem of greenhouse gases by signing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC commits nations to stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would avoid dangerous human interference with the climate. This is to be done so that ecosystems can adapt naturally to global warming, food production is not threatened, and economic development can proceed in a sustainable manner.

In December 1997 in Japan, 160 nations drafted an agreement known as the Kyōto Protocol, an amendment to the UNFCCC. This treaty set mandatory targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions with 38 industrialized nations expected to cut their emissions by an average of 5% below 1900 levels to be achieved by 2012 commencing in 2008. Thus, world leaders for the first time agreed to specific targets and rough timetables for reducing GHG emissions. The pact does not require any binding emission reductions for developing countries, but subsequent rounds of negotiations were set up to consider this and other issues in the years ahead. Industrialized nations are expected to take the first steps because they are responsible for most emissions to date and have more resources to devote to emissions-reduction efforts. The Kyōto Protocol, which expires in 2012, is only a first step in addressing greenhouse gas emissions. However, the United States which is a major polluter has refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and regrettably, the Kyōto provisions did not take into account the rapid industrialization of countries such as China and India, which are among the developing nations exempted from the protocol’s mandatory emissions reductions. China turned out to be the world’s largest CO2 emitter in 2006 surpassing the United States.

At the conference in the Danish capital city, it is hoped that world leaders will seal a comprehensive, fair, effective and binding climate change deal But the question is whether they will be able to achieve this feat because it appears more of lip-service is paid to issues on climate change. This brings us to natters arising (our apologies to Njoku)

Developing countries have portrayed themselves as victimized once again by the wealthier industrialized nations because they have the most to lose from continued global warming. For instance, the German Institute for Meteorology and Climate Research has noted that Africa, the continent already most affected by hunger and food scarcity, is likely to see its woes increased due to climate change and the changing rain patterns it provokes. According to the World Hunger Index, as measured by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), since 1990 hunger increased drastically in nine African countries. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, hunger increased by 67 percent, in Swaziland by 32 percent, in Guinea Bissau, Zimbabwe, Burundi, and Liberia by 19, 18, 17 and 16 percent respectively. In its recent 'Climate Change: Impact on Agriculture and Costs of Adaptation' report, updated November 6, 2009, the IFPRI also calls attention to the extreme vulnerability of agriculture to climate change. Back home in Nigeria, Director of Finance in the Climate Change Unit of the Federal Ministry of Environment, Mr. Peter Tarfa has noted that Nigeria faces a looming threat of economic losses up to about $100m annually as a result of the debilitating impact of desertification, deforestation, flooding, erosion and coastal sea rise if nothing is done to improve our adaptation capacity.

Thus, African countries to be led by Nigeria and Ethiopia are making a proposal to developed countries to contribute between $200bn and $400bn yearly to support the poor nations as part of the effort to attract the required level of funding for adaptation programmes, and as financial reparation for the economic and social losses brought upon them as a result of many years of carbon emission into the atmosphere. This is the Common African Position agreed by a resolution at the African Union Summit in 2008. Africa also resolved that it will neither accept replacement of Kyoto Protocol nor its merger with any new agreement. It is Africa’s position that developed countries must reduce their GHG emissions by at least 40% below 1990 levels by 2020 and at least 80% to 95% below 1990 levels by 2050, in order to achieve the lowest level of stabilization.

However, if recent comments from leaders of developed nations are carefully examined, it appears there is no political will on the part of developed countries to get it right this time around. It, therefore, behooves on developing countries to insist on climate justice at Copenhagen as they stand to suffer more from global warming. There must be a wider participation of developing countries to hold not just the 38 industrialised nations accountable, but insist that emerging economies such as China and India are also held accountable. There ought to be a striking balance between the developing countries’ right to economic development and their obligation for mitigation of climate change. All parties must act in good faith.

On its part, developing countries should act as exemplars even as they expect greater commitments from developed nations. Developing countries should adopt policies on zero carbon tolerance. In Nigeria, we must put an end to gas flaring by oil and gas companies. The December 2010 deadline must be strictly observed. Individuals, too, can take steps to curb their own emissions. Every time a consumer buys an energy-efficient appliance, uses energy-saving light bulbs, adds insulation to a house, recycles materials, chooses to live close to his/her place of work, or commutes by public transportation, plants a tree, he or she is fighting global warming.

Importantly, the world must view climate change as a human rights issue. This year, as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is worth remembering that document’s injunction that “everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which [their] rights and freedoms … can be fully realized”. Climate change disrupts that order. The international debate on climate change has largely focused on the discussions between a handful of nations in terms of their commitments, or failure to commit, to emissions reductions. Further, much current information, statistics, and policy debate revolves around, and is generated by, States and actors that are part of the climate problem, limiting discussion of their commitments to the costs they are willing to forego in order to slow climate change.

The debate hence is largely focused on the economic and industrial costs of addressing climate change. This emphasis leaves out a more important focus on the human and environmental costs of climate variation to vulnerable groups and climate-sensitive ecosystems. Some of the more active current negotiators pay lip service to their intention to support adaptation, but the reality is that both adaptation actions in developing countries, and the commitments to financing adaptation from industrialized countries, remain far below what is needed.

We need to shift our attention to the opportunities offered by transferring modern technologies (accompanied by financial transfers) from industrialized societies to developing countries, to work towards energy efficiency and security. This will ensure that developing countries can continue to develop while nevertheless working to phase out contaminating industries. It will also benefit many millions of people in some of the world’s poorest regions, by providing cost efficient energy solutions that also help the environment.

We also must focus on helping climate vulnerable countries and communities effectively address the disastrous negative impacts of climate change on their quality of life and their ability to protect and realize basic human rights. For the most part, climate vulnerable countries and communities have contributed little or nothing to the current climate crisis, yet they bear a disproportionate portion of its burden. A climate-justice agenda and a proper understanding of the development imbalances caused by climate change will be critical to effectively infuse the climate change debate with human rights in a way that is equitable for the most climate-vulnerable groups.

Human rights provide a framework within which to think through the risks of climate change and the policy structures and mechanisms required to provide effective responses to those that most need them.

Thinking through climate change from a development perspective and through a human rights lens will undoubtedly serve us well as we develop international and national climate strategies and programs and mitigation and adaptation policies, and as we identify the appropriate and necessary financing, allocate resources, and generally set the tone for future negotiations and global policy geared to equity and balance in our global climate policy.

Let us be reminded that “Copenhagen is our date with destiny” as observed by President Mohammed Nasheed of Maldives. But at the risk of sounding pessimistic, the world may not see a successful Copenhagen Conference in terms of a complete, fair and binding agreement as there are conflicting interests amongst nations and complex issues which might take a while to resolve. The meeting may end up as another step in achieving climate justice. ENDS

*Ondotimi Songi, a lawyer lives in Port Harcourt.

**Timipere Songi, a lawyer lives in Yenagoa.


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