Thursday, December 15, 2011

Durban's 'death sentence' for millions

The last-minute deal at the Durban climate summit was as believable as the climax of a reality TV show. Cheering, back-slapping delegates had just condemned millions to starvation and homelessness.

Any binding agreement to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases must now wait until 2020. Negotiations will not begin until 2014, and will in effect start from scratch - as if the Kyoto protocol never existed.

All major polluters will be expected to agree to substantial cuts. But when it comes to it - will any of them agree to anything that limits profit-driven growth? Not as long as the corporations are calling the shots they won't.

Just to underline the point, the day after the talks concluded, the Canadian government abandoned the Kyoto treaty. They were not on course to meet their Kyoto target, and faced significant fines. Japan, Russia and possibly Australia, are likely to follow suit.

Now Canada can “focus on jobs and growth”, said the country’s environment minister. What he means is his government wants big oil corporations to go all out to extract huge deposits of oil from sand. This a high emissions process, that will also help lock the planet in to fossil fuel burning for the foreseeable future

As a result, the world is now on course for catastrophic outcomes. "Eight years from now is a death sentence on Africa," said Nigerian environmentalist Nnimmo Bassey, chairperson of Friends of the Earth International.

The International Energy Agency, in its annual outlook last month, said that without significant reductions in emissions over the next 25 years, there will be an average temperature rise of 3.5ºc.

The science is clear enough. Warming over 3°C will create feedback loops, causing runaway greenhouse effects:

• the Amazon rainforest starts to die back
• coral reefs die and are replaced by algae and sea grass
• irreversible loss of the Greenland ice sheet occurs
• release of methane hydrates in ocean floor sediments further adds to warming
• permafrost thaws, releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases currently fixed.

So what is to be done? Well, there are still options available and it is not too late to act. Much of the greenhouse gas that will cause significant warming is already up there, and the effects are already being felt across the planet.

But if we introduce cuts in emissions starting now, it may be possible to hold warming below 2ºC. At the same time as emergency plans to cut emissions, massive resources could be invested in mitigation – developing drought-resistant crops; more effective water use; improving natural flood defences on coasts and river deltas; switching to sustainable farming methods; fair shares of land.

In the UK, that could mean local and regional People’s Assemblies developing their own action plans, and also sending delegates to a national Assembly that could plan, for example, to immediately:
• close London’s carbon trading exchange
• fund insulation grants and solar panels for all households where suitable
• bring rail, air and bus networks into not-for-profit ownership, slashing fares and working for an integrated transport system
• take cars out of city centres with park and ride, and create public transport/cycle-only boxes in the centre of cities
• establish car pool schemes and car sharing schemes
• set upper limits on total flight miles in and out of Britain and distribute them fairly through an air miles system
• halt airport expansion
• halt plans to build a new generation of nuclear power stations
• launch a crash programme of renewable energy projects.

But the most urgent question we face is political. As long as profit-driven growth is the sole priority of government, nothing can change. But a global network of People’s Assemblies could quickly put together a binding agreement, and open the way for a new era of sustainable production to meet the needs of people and planet. Debating how to achieve this should become the focus for meetings and occupations up and down the country early in the New Year.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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