The United Nations Climate Conference in Durban A brief history

Posted on Wednesday, 30 November 2011

This is the first in a series of reports on the UN Climate Change conference curreently taking place in Durban prepared by Sean McDonagh SSC. Social Justice Ireland is very grateful to Sean for providing these updates.
One of the pitfalls which many of us who have attended the United Nations Climate Conference for years fall into is that we assume that the general reader has a good grasp of the history of these conferences and the issues which have been thrashed out during the past 20 years. On this the third day of the Durban Conference a brief history might be helpful.

Countries from across the globe began to address the problems associated with global warming and climate change at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1990. At that meeting it was agreed to set up a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC). This body was tasked with setting out a framework for action aimed at stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic (human-induced) interference with the climate system.” Unfortunately, due mostly to the intervention of the United States under President George Bush (senior), no target or timelines were set. The Convention came into force in March 1994. (John Vidal, “Revealed: which oil giant influenced Bush,” The Guardian, June 8th 2005, page 5. )

The next significant milestone took place at the UNFCCC Conference in Kyoto, Japan in December 1997. The delegates agreed to a Protocol which committed industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The target which was set was a reduction of between 5.2% and 7% below their 1990 levels in the period between 2008 and 2012. What became known as the Kyoto Protocol came into force on February 16th 2005. It ends next year in 2012.

In the run-up to the Kyoto Conference a group of industries known as the ‘Carbon Club’ ran advertisements in the US media aimed at blocking the US from signing the Kyoto Protocol. Many of these companies, especially those involved in the energy sector, were afraid that their profits would plummet if there was a drop in fossil fuel consumption. Among them were household names such as Exxon-Mobile, Shell, Ford and General Motors. They used all kinds of tactics – corporate PR, psychology, mass media manipulation techniques and political muscle to force the Clinton administration to do their will. Even though the US delegation which was led by Vice-President Al Gore signed the Kyoto Protocol, the Byrd-Hagel resolution which claimed that the Protocol would damage the US economy was passed by the US Senate by an overwhelming 95 votes to 0). Within a few months of being elected President, George W Bush repudiated the Kyoto Protocol. Document leaked to the press at the time of the Gleneagles meeting of the G7 in June 2005 in Scotland made it clear that President George W Bush’s decision was due in part to the pressure from Exxon-mobile, the world’ most powerful oil company.
As the work of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol process became more intricate subsidiary bodies were set up to help those involved in various aspects of the negotiations. One of these is called the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention (AWG-LCA). Another was the Subsidiary Body for Scientific Advice (SBSTA). These and scores of other acronyms are used constantly in negotiations and discussions to the point that even veterans who have attended UNFCCC meetings need a glossary to understand which is being said!

The next most significant UNFCCC took place in December 2007 on the beautiful island of Bali in Indonesia. There result of that meeting became known as the Bali Road Map. It put the spotlight on the three areas which need to be addressed in any climate treaty. Given the dire consequences of a significant increase in global temperature, the primary focus of the UNFCCC is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. In the language of the UNFCCC this is called mitigation. Secondly, the plight of those who are already being affected by climate change must be addressed. Many of the countries which did least to cause climate change will be most affected by it. One has only to think what will happen to the water supply of Lima if the glaciers on the Andes disappear? Responding to this is referred to as Adaptations. The final plank in the strategy is called Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM). During the past 200 years the prosperity of rich countries was based on having cheap fossil fuel readily available. China and India are now following the same pathway. Poor countries have a right to develop, but if they opt for the fossil fuel route it will be a disaster for everyone. To avoid this happening, rich countries must make clean energy technologies available to poor countries