(All images in this post: ITUC)
Reposted from TWU Workers’ Rights are Human Rights page.
A comprehensive global treaty on climate change appears to be within reach for the first time after agreement was reached at the United Nations climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa in the early hours of Sunday morning. However, the agreement does not include the immediate emissions cuts needed to avert irreversible climate disaster.
Negotiators agreed to start work on a new climate deal that would have legal force and require both developed and developing countries to cut their carbon emissions. The terms now need to be agreed by 2015 and take effect beginning in 2020.
International Vice President Roger Toussaint, who represented TWU at the talks, was asked why it matters whether or not we deal with climate change. Toussaint replied, “Because if we do not, our country’s economy and direction will be dictated by the needs of the energy companies, and our children’s future will be sacrificed for them.”
The agreement came just in time, as the current global treaty, the Kyoto Protocol (which the U.S. never signed) expires in 2012. The international labor movement had come to the talks urging that the Kyoto Protocol at least be extended while a new agreement is being negotiated, and that a roadmap be established leading to a global agreement before 2015.
However, the deal did little to address the scale of emissions cuts needed, and labor and environmental groups said this was a major shortcoming. For example, the ITUC, which represents the international trade union movement, expressed its disappointment that climate negotiators in Durban had agreed a platform to continue negotiations, but without any guarantees that will make the cuts to emissions demanded by science to stop a climate disaster.
“The Kyoto Protocol, a critical piece in the climate agreement, survived the talks but without key countries, without commitments on emission reductions and with major loopholes. And a new negotiating round was launched aimed at being implemented in 2020,” said Sharan Burrow, President of the ITUC.
Scientists have warned the delay to 2020 puts the planet, and people at great risk of irreversible damage from rising temperatures.
“This delay must not distract from the immediate action governments need to take to invest in a low-carbon economy and create green jobs and a Just Transition,” said Sharan Burrow. “Unions will not wait until 2020 for action to reduce emissions and reshape economies. “
The two weeks of talks — the last 60 hours of which was a single marathon negotiating session — ended with a surprise decision just before dawn on Sunday. The UK Guardian reported that with tempers rising and the talks minutes from being abandoned, the chair, South African foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, ordered China, India, the US, Britain, France, Sweden, Gambia, Brazil and Poland to meet in a small group or “huddle”. Surrounded by nearly 100 delegates on the floor of the hall, they were forced to talk among themselves to try to reach a new form of words acceptable to all. And they did.
The agreement requires for the first time that developing countries, including China, which recently surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest overall emitter of greenhouse gases, agreeing to be legally bound to curb their emissions. Seemingly in exchange, the U.S., now the second biggest emitter and still the largest per capita emitter, also agreed that the new pact would have “legal force” – a step it considered in 1997 with the Kyoto protocol, but abandoned as Congress made clear it would not ratify that agreement. Previously, the Obama administration had said that it would only agree to a binding agreement if large developing countries like China would also agree to accept emissions cuts.
At the Copenhagen talks in late 2009, President Obama put on the table the “Copenhagen Accord” in which countries announced emissions reductions for 2020 based on a voluntary system. However, reductions pledged by nations under that Accord fall dramatically short of the reductions the scientific community say are required to stabilize the world’s climate. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading scientific body dealing with climate change, the developed countries need to reduce their emissions below1990 levels by 25-40% on average by 2020. According to the Stockholm Institute, the emissions reductions for 2020 filed under the Copenhagen Accord—which remain aspirational—will set the world on a pathway to as much as 5 degrees Celsius of global warming, which is way above the level scientists say will lead to an “irreversible” climate crisis.
The agreement also ensured that developing countries will soon begin to gain access to billions of dollars in financial assistance from the developed world to help them move to a green economy and cope with the effects of climate change.
Global Unions Advocated Strong Steps
In both a public statement and a letter to US chief negotiator Todd Stern, the Blue Green Alliance (which represents 14 union and environmental partners) declared climate change to be “a dire and urgent threat” and called on the US to both support a binding agreement and to do what it could to make up for lost time in reducing US emissions. Unions were seriously engaged in the official talks inside the convention center, but they also worked on the outside along with other social movements. Discussions focused on how to address the climate crisis in ways that are effective and equitable—and to fill the vacuum left by the inaction of governments. Addressing the 10,000-person march in Durban on Saturday, December 3, South Africa’s leading trade union figure, COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, said, “We demand action not tourism. This cannot be a world conference in which everybody came just to have a nice time.” Vavi and other trade union leaders and climate justice advocates got at least part of what they asked for.
(Based on reporting by the UK Guardian, the International Trade Union Confederation, and the Cornell Global Labor Institute)