Monday, January 24, 2011


Some thoughts on the alternative summits and the results of the COP-16
By Val Croft

As a BTS intern with CEIBA – a Guatemalan environmental rights organization that works on issues of food sovereignty, the defense of territory, and climate justice – I was fortunate enough to attend the Global Forum on Climate Justice in early December in Cancun. The conference was organized by Friends of the Earth Mexico and Otros Mundos, as one of the many alternative meetings spaces set up to coincide with the 16th Conference of the Parties (better known as the COP-16) under the United Nations Framework for Climate Change (UNFCC).

Armed with a backpack of clothes, my tent and some blank notebooks, I left Huehuetenango at 6am on December 3rd with several others from CEIBA to drive to San Cristóbal, Chiapas where we met up with a 250-person-strong caravan heading to Cancun.

Over the next week, I attended panel discussions on the evidence for the climate crisis and the role that free trade agreements, transnational corporations and global financial institutions play in worsening it. I listened to Indigenous Peoples from across the world talk in these panels about the rights of Mother Earth and the need for climate justice. I heard arguments for the necessity to look at our forests as the generators of life, instead of just carbon stores that can be divided up and traded.

In roundtable discussions, we talked about the fundamental logical flaws of capitalism – the continual expansion and accumulation of natural resources in a resource-finite world – and debated real strategies for creating a new global system we can survive with. We heavily discussed the false, market-based solutions – programs like REDD+, the enormous expansion of biofuels, and the promotion of carbon trading – that are already well-established and heavily promoted by the corporate elite, without any real basis for believing they will have a positive impact on carbon reductions, and ignoring the experience that would indicate otherwise.

Although we gathered together to exchange information in organized panel sessions and roundtable workshops, what was equally important were the stories we traded over meal times in the community kitchen mess tent, and the experiences we shared sitting around a circle, making musical instruments out of whatever we could find in our tent city. What we were left with was an even stronger awareness that the destructive impacts of climate change are already being felt the world over.

So what was the big deal anyway? The COP-16.

While all of our discussions were happening, global political leaders and their negotiators were meeting to advance their own agenda at the COP-16. These meetings took place between November 29th and December 10th in the luxurious Moon Palace, with the goal of re-establishing confidence in a global forum where countries could effectively negotiate to find solutions to climate change. Already, in comparison with the failures of the COP-15 meetings in Copenhagen last year, the meetings this year are being triumphed by the mainstream media as a case study in international diplomacy and cooperation. But after having read the final declaration of the COP-16, I can’t help but rhetorically ask: Where is the substance? Whose voices have been left out?

The Accord generally acknowledges the need for cuts in global emissions, while recognizing the role developed countries have played in getting our atmosphere to a toxic 390 parts per million of carbon dioxide. It loosely calls on developed countries to take on their fair share of the financial burden in addressing the effects of climate change, while assisting developing countries through a substantial technology transfer and access to financial resources from a global Green Climate Fund.

But again, I have to ask: where is the substance?

The barely existent reference to the protection of human rights, with only the most haphazard reference to the relevant provisions of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is very concerning. Also concerning is the role the Accord gives to the World Bank as the manager of the Global Green Climate Fund; this, despite loud cries by environmental NGOs for the financial institution that plays such a large role in making possible many of the causes of climate change – funding a record $6.3 billion to fossil fuel projects in 2010 alone - to have no role in managing climate finance.

In addition, although on paper the life of the Ad Hoc Working Committee on the Kyoto Protocol has been extended for another year, it is no secret that several powerful developed countries – including Canada – are doing their best to derail targets and withdraw completely from the only legally-binding mechanism for emission reductions. Instead, singing on key to the tune of “voluntary pledges,” these countries will likely have success in replacing the Kyoto Protocol with loose, non-binding targets that have no hope of reaching the drastic 40%-minimum reductions in emissions by developed countries that current science claims is necessary to begin to address climate change.

In a sentence: Despite the nice fluff, the agreement adopted at the UN climate talks in Cancun completely ignores the more critical point: the need for steep, binding emissions cuts for developed countries.

Market-based “solutions”: REDD+ and carbon offsetting

What did advance substantially, however, were talks around REDD+ programs – the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries.

REDD+ sets the framework for polluting corporations in the North to purchase carbon offsetting credits from countries in the South, therefore complying with their emission reduction targets and getting a green stamp of approval. These companies could then claim they operate "emission neutral" because they have helped to conserve trees in other parts of the world that are supposedly consuming the carbon that the polluting company emitted. Digging a little deeper, it becomes clear that this will allow corporations to continue with "business as usual," with lower costs associated with buying trees than would be attributed to reducing their carbon emissions.

Those in support of this program claim that it would give forest-dwelling communities the financial resources to climb out of poverty, leaving behind their need to rely on forests for fuel and building materials. But this program treats any forest "destroyer" the same - regardless of whether it is a company from the Global North that is participating in widescale deforestation to make way for bio-fuel plantations or cattle farming, or Indigenous communities that have relied on forests for their livelihoods for centuries. Many environmental organizations, including Friends of the Earth International, warn that including forests in carbon markets is a sure way to trigger a land grab, with no consideration to the rights of Indigenous Peoples to Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

Despite being championed as one of the great "successes" of the COP-16, there is no scientific basis for believing this will have any positive effect on cooling the planet.

The Alternative Voices at the COP-16: The ALBA countries

Many of the ALBA countries – Bolivia in particular – spoke up in favour of the environment, and as a result, were labeled by the international media as having blocked negotiations, in bad spirits of international cooperation. Most notably, Bolivia presented the results of the People’s Declaration on the rights of Mother Earth that was signed in Cochabamba in April 2010, in an attempt to bring the voices of social movements to the COP-16.

Getting to hear Bolivian President Evo Morales speak on the last day of the conference was a definite highlight. As I waited for him to come onstage, I thought about the divisions within the environmental movement itself, and wondered what else we could have done to have our voices heard. I wondered what damage will come out of yet more international accords that don´t put the rights of Mother Earth first.

Thankfully I find that inspiration comes at the most important times, and this was no exception. As I listened to Bolivian musical groups energetically play, I read the back of the t-shirt the guy sitting in front of me was wearing. With a well-known quote by Archbishop Oscar Romero, it read:

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something and to do it really well.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders.
We are ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

As I finish writing this more than a month later, the last line – “we are prophets of a future not our own” - still rings in my head. Although we have already seen big climate changes and will continue to see them over the next decades, those who will most feel what we leave behind will be future generations. With that in mind, I look towards the next round of discussions in South Africa next December, as yet another one of the many spaces for us to meet, with new strategies building on what we worked on in Cancun and what we will work on over the year to come.