Another sellout in Durban

Another year, yet another UN climate change conference. The message from this year’s UN climate conference in Durban, South Africa is loud, clear and extremely worrying. The world is accelerating down a path of irreversible and catastrophic climate change. Even worse, there’s no real solution in sight.

The 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP17, as it is popularly known, has concluded in Durban after marathon negotiations. The international mainstream media outlets are spinning a narrative centred around “climate conference approves landmark deal” and the few Indian media outlets that have seen it worthwhile covering are talking about how “India gets its way as climate summit in Durban closes”. To anyone who has been following the climate change conference and the climate justice movement, these news reports are nothing but a cruel and irresponsible joke.

The highlights from Durban

What are the highlights from the Durban consensus?

  • Second commitment period till 2017: EU has agreed to a second commitment period under the Kyoto protocol till 2017. However, the largest polluter, the United States has never ratified the Kyoto protocol. Japan, Russia and Canada have also refused to join the second commitment period, leaving Kyoto protocol pretty much alive only on paper.

  • A legally binding successor treaty in 2020: The Durban platform also signals a roadmap to a new climate treaty that will replace Kyoto Protocol. It has to be negotiated by 2015 and will not take effect until 2020. It will include all major emitters of greenhouse gases - including the developing countries under the same legally binding agreement - thereby signalling a major departure from the accepted principles of equity in Kyoto protocol that rightly held developed countries to higher standards of legally binding emission reductions.

  • More empty talk of ambition, technology transfer and financing: There has also been more talk of raising levels of ambition to reduce the widening gap between the pledged cuts and what’s needed to keep temperature change within 2 degrees. The much awaited Global Climate Fund was again left in a limbo, with no agreement on where the funds will come from. Meanwhile, market based mechanisms and private funding as means to finance the climate rescue effort, continue to gather momentum with very little clarity regarding on the details[1].

If one looks beyond the self-congratulatory headlines and PR sound-bytes like “saving tomorrow today”, the disturbing reality emerges. At the current rate, we are looking at a 4 degree rise in temperature by the end of this century - that’s double the absolute maximum permissible temperature increase to avoid a global catastrophe. The Durban conference has done nothing to stop it, instead it has decided in favor of words but no action till 2020. The rich countries - primarily US, EU and Japan - has again refused to provide much needed financial help for developing countries to develop green technology. Not only is the United States not reducing emissions significantly under their voluntary “pledge and review” approach, the US and EU negotiators were actively involved in blocking proposals and lobbying developing countries to fall in line with their destructive agenda.

What needs to be done?

Climate science is rather clear on what needs to be done. A 2 degrees celsius rise in global temperatures from pre-industrial levels is the absolute maximum mankind can afford to even have a 50-50 chance of avoiding a global catastrophe. In order to even reach this stage, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere should not exceed 450 parts per million. This calls for deep cuts in green house gas emissions so that net emissions will be nearly 44 billion tonnes in 2020 and under 20 billion tonnes in 2050. With every passing year, the target for emission cuts gets steeper and steeper. With no new pledges being put on the table at Durban, the challenge is getting more formidable by the day.

Equity and climate justice

Like the science of climate change, the notion of equity and common but differentiated responsibility cannot be ignored. After all, the polluters must pay and the heavier burden must be put on the rich countries who have benefited the most from pollution in the industrial age. Climate change is is a global phenomenon, but it disproportionately affects the poor and marginalized people of the world, whether it be in South Asia or North America.


To claim that developing countries like India and China are the major culprits for climate change, even when their per-capita carbon dioxide emissions are well below the developed countries, is nothing but imperialist propaganda. For instance, India and China are ranked 138 (at 1.5 tonnes) and 77 (at 5.3 tonnes) respectively in terms of per capita CO2 emissions[3]. As climate change analysts like Martin Khor of the South Center have pointed out, India and China are in absolute terms large polluters because they are the most populous sovereign republics. Their only crime, if they can be accused of one, is to have emerged as strong nation states without succumbing to colonial powers!

Little has changed in the US approach to climate justice

India and China had given strong statements and indeed rousing speeches to the effect that they seek equity and climate justice in continuation with the Bali roadmap and Kyoto protocol. Indeed that was the rallying cry for the global climate justice movement. Yet, the rich countries, led by the EU and backed tacitly by the US, succeeded in arm twisting developing countries to accept legally binding cuts and abandon the demand for equity. What transpired at the impromptu meeting on the conference floor, just before dawn on Sunday, billed as a “huddle to save the planet” and other backroom parleys between negotiators from India, China, EU and US is not clear at the moment [2]. As one activist noted in a tweet, the US chief negotiator, Todd Stern reportedly told the negotiators: “If equity’s in, we’re out”. The UPA government and specifically, India’s Minister for Environment and chief negotiator, Jayanti Natarajan, has a lot to explain for this pathetic sell out before imperialist interests.

The road ahead - Inquilab, not just Indaba

It is not an easy road ahead from Durban. Climate change denialism, whether it is expressed in the vulgar form by right-wing climate skeptics who claim that climate change is a figment of scientific imagination, or in the more sophisticated form, by liberal minded do-gooders who in their naivety pretend that a good dose of altruism and capitalism can solve the planet’s problems, has to be combated to build genuine 21st century alternatives[4].

Occupy COP17 protest in Durban. Image Credits: IISD

One of the buzzwords doing its rounds this time around in Durban was “indaba” . It is a Zulu word that roughly means a council of elders who meet to resolve important issues. It is now clear that the council of elders and bureaucrats, especially like what we have seen in Copenhagen conference onwards, has failed the people of the world and our shared desire for an effective and just resolution to the climate crisis. Even as multilateral mechanisms like UNFCCC have to be rescued from the threat of “pledge and review” voluntarism, it is becoming rather clear that such institutional mechanisms alone cannot “get it done”. Only a broad based climate justice mobilization by the left forces, one that has the audacity to challenge capitalism and the systemic crisis, at all levels of political engagement from the local to the global, can provide a realistic solution to this man-made crisis.


  1. Chestney, Nina (2011 Dec 11). “What U.N. climate talks agreed in Durban”. Reuters. Retrieved from

  2. Harvey, F and Vidal, J (2011 Dec 11). “Global climate change treaty in sight after Durban breakthrough” The Guardian. Retrieved from

  3. Khor, Martin (2011 Dec 10) “Triple Crisis “Spotlight Durban: The Fight at the Heart of the Durban Climate Talks”. Triple Crisis. Retrieved from

  4. Foster, J.B. (2011 Nov 14) “Ecological crisis: our worst enemy is denial”. Green Left Weekly. Retrieved from