I attended the Climate Change Symposium hosted by Cape Chamber of Business and the Rotary club of Helderberg on 04 -02- 2010 to get a better understanding of what the Copenhagen Climate Change (COP 15) talks were all about. The account below attempts to understand why COP 15 was a cop out. Given that scientists are telling us that global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must peak no later than 2017 we need to be aware that the political process is not moving fast or far enough and that we all need to wake up and act. There is no Planet B!!!

The Climate Change Symposium in Somerset West last week reflects the growing interest by business and community leaders in the potential risks of Climate Change and is a step in the right direction. Tasneem Essop of World Wildlife Fund (SA) was invited to report back on her experience of COP 15, while Jonathan Hanks of the Incite Sustainability Consultancy spoke about the South African corporate response to Climate Change.

Tasneem started her account by saying that speaking about COP15 was like `re-opening a wound’ – such was her personal disappointment at the outcome.  GEOPOLITICS TRIUMPHED OVER SCIENCE is a four word summary of the outcome, an agreement called the Copenhagen Accord. 

Given the heightened level of expectation, why did the Accord end up setting such unambitious targets with no legal status, no political legitimacy nor any compliance mechanisms?  Sadly, genuine negotiation was unachievable because of a range of political agendas. There was an essential lack of trust between the various power-blocks and the conference process enhanced this mistrust.  The power-blocks were not limited to political alliances but included business and development interests such as OPEC and international trade agreements. The developing world’s right to development, and their claim to a fair share of the permissible GHG emissions vs the developed world’s claims for more time in which to reduce their GHG emissions was a major stumbling block.  The first week of negotiations was pretty much deadlocked by mistrust between participants and a badly managed facilitation process so that a “business as usual” model was followed with the more powerful nations calling the shots.  This was exacerbated in the second week of the talks when the heads of state entered and intervened in the already deadlocked process.  As a result, the conference proceedings exhibited a lack of `democracy ‘ in a number of ways. NGO’s were essentially kicked out of the process in a manner which goes against all UN stakeholder participation principles. Many nations outside the G20 and especially the smaller Latin American states and the small island states most vulnerable to Climate Change and sea-level rise were completely cold shouldered. Saudi Arabia, however managed to get the heads of big states to agree in principle to compensate them for loss of income through any restrictions on oil sales!!  

The bottom line of COP 15 was that no scientifically endorsed top down targets to reduce GHG came out of the process.  Nations in the developed world were, in general, not prepared to cut their emissions by between 24-40% by 2020 as is required for a fair sharing of the available `carbon space’.  Instead a far weaker bottom up system was established whereby individual nations voluntarily `pledged’ to reduce their GHG emissions.

The good news is that 56 nations, including South Africa, did register their emission targets by 31 January 2010 in terms of the COP 15 agreement and that efforts at finding workable solutions will continue through a series of high level conferences – keeping Climate Change very much on the political agenda.  The 16th conference takes place in Mexico this year and the 17th takes place in South Africa early in 2011.  Other positive outcomes include: agreement to look globally for sources of revenue to fund new technology and to address the impacts of climate change. A review of the science behind Climate Change is planned in order to ensure that predictions are current and accurate, and a review of the Accord is scheduled for 2015. 

The bad news is that the numbers on the table in terms of existing pledges will likely take us to a 3° temperature riseand scientists warn that the consequences of Climate Change will be killing and irreversible if temperature rise exceeds 2°.   More bad news is that many of these pledges are undermined by conditions.  South Africa for example has pledged a 24% reduction in GHG emissions below a business as usual trajectory by 2020 and 42% by 2025.  However, South Africa, in keeping with many developing nations, argues that achievement of these targets is conditional on financial and technological support from the developed world.  Our pledge is also inconsistent with Eskom’s plans to build 3 new coal fired power stations within the next 10 years and Eskom’s stifling hold on the renewable energy sector. 

Conditional pledges are a clear reflection of the lack of urgency about Climate Change and the absence of commitment to a global solution. Governments and big business are more worried about moving to a new economic model than they are of climate related catastrophes. So on one hand, while there is a clear commitment in the Accord to provide funding to support developing nations to meet GHG targets, this finance commitment has not been formalized. A recurring theme is that the developed nations will put in more funding to assist the developing world to meet emissions targets if the developing world agrees to `develop less’!!  Monitoring the GHG emissions of developing nations won’t be easy either. India and China, for example, refuse to be transparent about their business and development operations.

One way of attempting to determine the GHG emissions of big business is through the national Carbon Disclosure Project.  This is a voluntary process and appeals to big business to disclose the carbon emissions associated with their business and to set targets to reduce these emissions.  In South Africa, the top 100 listed JSE companies are invited annually to publically disclose their CO2 emissions. 68% complied which is the 5th highest response rate in the world.  Jonathan Hanks reported however that our top 100 companies, taken collectively are not on track to make the required shift to reduce their CO2 emissions. 

 Considering that the geo-political challenges of COP15 are not likely to go away and that business is responding too slowly, how does one move forward?  A world wide grass-roots approach is required which focuses on lobbying governments to move to a low carbon economy, to timeously invest in renewable energy, and to increase public and business awareness of the social and environmental costs of ignoring Climate Change.   A paradigm shift is required that redefines development and moves away from an economy based on materialism and in-built obsolescence.  We need to replace GDP as the prime economic indicator with one which includes the health of a country’s environmental and social capital. Governments and business have not demonstrated the capacity to make this paradigm shift.  What scale of climate induced disaster will be required to wake us up? 


7 February 2010