From Durban to Rio

Alejo Etchart Ortiz argues that civil society has had enough of business-as-usual

After the disappointing outcome of COP 17 in Durban, environmentalist and Stakeholder Forum Advisor, Alejo Etchart Ortiz argues that civil society has had enough of business-as-usual and is charting its own path to a sustainable future.

Negotiations at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 17th Conference of Parties (COP) in Durban earlier this month demonstrated that the world is in desperate need of new governance for sustainability. National government-led negotiations will not be able to achieve this. They are institutions intrinsically focused on the interests of their people and caught up in the short-termism of the electoral cycle in democracies. There is clearly a mismatch here since climate change is a long term and global problem.

The behaviour of Canada at COP 17 is a clear example of this. Their decision to pull out of a second Kyoto commitment period ignores the devastating consequences that climate change is already having in many poor countries (South) and are increasingly affecting the developed world (North). Throughout the Durban negotiations, it became clear that the Canadian national delegation were intent on disrupting the process. Here, I explore why.

As a father, one would have thought that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper should be at least as worried as me about their future. I don’t believe that the answer is that he or his Conservative Party are simply climate change deniers, especially considering the scientific warning and the empiric evidences about its fatal consequences. As a matter of fact, Canadian Government does give credibility these fatal consequences, as proved by the warnings made by the federal agency Environment Canada that climate change is the cause of unusual weather, the increase of extreme weather events and beetle infestation in their forests. But they have still not behaved consistently with the responsibility that these warnings involve.

Rather, it seems that oil and gas interest is too coercing. The industry seems to be fundamental to Harper’s political power. The export revenues from exploiting tar sands in Alberta and new coal mines and shale gas fracking in British Columbia are probably more convincing and tangible arguments for the Canadian Government than the benefits from any climate action. Additionally, the status of these traditional businesses is as easy to protect during an economic downturn, as it is to ridicule those who challenge the status on unsustainability grounds. From a conservative perspective, oil and coal exploitations will cause fewer protests than the consequences derived from a serious shift to renewable energy.

Furthermore, Canada’s decision to pull out of a 2nd commitment period one year before the 1st commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol expires will protect them from  sanctions. Instead of reducing emissions by 6 per cent as required by the 1st commitment period, Canada’s emissions have risen by over 30 per cent relative to 1990 levels. However, as far as sanctions go, these would have been determined by higher targets in a forthcoming commitment period.

The frustrating agreement reached in Durban, and considering Canada’s decision to pull out of the process illustrates how the Kyoto Protocol and its extension fails in each of the three requirements that Scott Barrett, Professor of Natural Resource Economics, argues need to be simultaneously met by global climate agreements if they are to be effective. These failures  include:

  1. they are not sufficiently attractive to many countries, particularly China, USA and India;
  2.  they do not get participants to comply; and
  3. agreed emissions are far from being sufficiently ambitious. Scientists say that current commitments will result in at least a 3.5 ˚C rise in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels. This is of course above the commonly cited (although not necessarily correct) 2 ˚C threshold of dangerous climate change.


Even worse, the structural double myopia (in time and space) of national governments makes it seem almost impossible that these requirements could ever be met. In this context, the level of climate change injustice is rising. While rich countries fret over the impact of climate change policy on their economies despite holding responsibility for the majority of historic emissions, poor countries continue to be on the frontline of the consequences of climate change.

But a wave of new conscience based on the principles of sustainable development is emerging across the globe. While national governments fail to overcome their local and short-termist views, civil society are becoming leaders in the way forward. People of the world have had enough of business-as-usual. Recent public protests and the growth in practical on-the-ground projects across the world illustrate this. Examples include:

  • The extraordinary popular uprising of the pacific movement on the 15th May in Madrid and the rest of Spain raised awareness of the inequality caused by a savage capitalism. It was replicated in many other nations. The Occupy Movement continues to grow and has attracted significant press coverage worldwide.
  • An oil company’s (TransCanada Corp.) intention to build pipelines to get tar sands crude to market has met massive opposition in the US and British Columbia.
  • The Transition Towns and Post-Carbon Cities movements are expanding at breakneck speed. These initiatives promote decentralized and sustainable economies with a high degree of self-sufficiency and low growth, supporting people mobilization as the key to produce transformations. They have hundreds of local versions in the UK and the US, and their view of a society adapted to the forthcoming low carbon economy is crossing boundaries.
  • Villages such as Loos-en-Gohelle in France, or counties like Caerphilly in Wales are examples of how wellbeing can be created through community scaled projects.
  • Time banks, a reciprocal exchange that uses units of time as currency, are spreading.
  • People are understanding the meaning of and the need for building resilience.
  • Local agriculture is having a renaissance.
  • Local economies are becoming more autonomous and seeking alternative systems of operation such as:  permaculture, distributed energy, local waste management (e.g. composting), car-pooling and modal shifts to more active forms of transport.

Some cities around the world have officially recognised the challenges created by peak oil or climate change. New social or economic movements such as the New Economy 20+20, the Economy of the Commons, the De-growth movement, the Green New Deal, Inclusive Businesses in the Base of the Pyramid or Co-management are leaving the orthodox growth paradigm behind. And, instead are embracing different measures of progress, such as those with a wellbeing focus. Hundreds of thousands of civil society organizations around the world are calling for, and implementing different approaches the economy and configuration of society. Even more traditional private sector firms are taking significant steps to Corporate Social Responsibility that go beyond simply greening their public image.

Felix Dodds, Executive Director and Founder of Stakeholder Forum wrote in the Donostia Declaration (2008):

A more fundamental revolution is needed, not in 40 years’ time and not only in one country, but in the next ten years and across the globe.

While Senator Robert Kennedy’s words in 1968 resonate with current circumstances:

A revolution is coming— a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; compassionate if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough. But a revolution is coming whether we will it or not. We can affect its character; we cannot alter its inevitability.

The next big international event focusing on sustainability is the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as the 3rd Earth Summit or Rio+20, in June 2012. It will deal with two major themes: the ‘institutional framework for sustainable development’ and the ‘green economy in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development’.

The Earth Summit 2012 has bold ambitions to be the platform for a definitive takeoff from the old paradigm to a new one that assumes the principles of a new green economy. After the disappointing agreement met in Durban by governments, civil society must, and can play a leading role in Rio.

Let’s assume it and spread the message.


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