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Our Insights 5 Dec 2011

The Durban Disconnects?

By Geoff Lye

The second in a series of posts about and from COP 17. Others in the series can be found here: one, three, four, five, six, and seven.

In the lift to my hotel room this morning, I was embarrassed to be sweating profusely after a run along Durban’s beach promenade under a blue sky in 25 degrees with high humidity (yes, hard work at these COPs!). As the lift doors closed, a delegate from a COP 17 side event leaped in. ‘It’s freezing in the conference,’ she said, ‘I’m heading for my room to get a jumper.’ The irony was not lost on others in the lift, but it did highlight for me the continuing disconnect between the rhetoric and action. And Durban does not look remotely well set to close the gap between the two.

Disconnect 1

Almost 25 years ago, in her ground-breaking report on Sustainable Development, Gro Harlem Brundtland highlighted climate change as a pressing issue, including this call to action: “Nations urgently need to formulate and agree upon management policies for all environmentally reactive chemicals released into the atmosphere by human activities, particularly those that can influence the radiation balance on earth.” At Rio+20 next year, we will be forced to take stock of progress and admit that the window of opportunity to take steps necessary to avoid dangerous climate change has all but closed. The world has continued to sleep walk into a situation that future generations will find hard to believe. And hopes for substantive progress in Durban are close to zero: see this letter to Hillary Clinton from leading US environmental organisations to get a sense of how far the US and Obama have backtracked on past pledges to be proactive on the climate issue. The tension between the historic emitters and the fastest growing emerging economies has been a constant factor in negotiations over the last years but has not seemed insurmountable. Here at Durban, however, the US position is to stress China’s role as the largest emitter, but fails entirely to see that it has effectively outsourced its own emissions to China through the shift in consumer goods manufacturing to Asia. And ignores the cumulative climate burden of historic emissions (see figure below). The rational disconnect is extraordinary; the moral one depressing.

Disconnect 2

I attended an excellent event last night hosted by the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, which has been a formidable force in driving new sustainability thinking among business leaders. The theme was a sustainable South Africa in 2035 – with an amazing tour de force by two very thoughtful speakers who ‘spoke from the future’ and described the radical disruptions in markets, lifestyles and technology which had delivered to these time travellers a vibrant, prosperous and healthy society. The shifts they described were the stuff of common sense, but the leap to achieve it from our current starting point feels insurmountable within the timeframes that our ecosystems (including climate systems) now allow. Over dinner after the event, I had a long and fascinating conversation with CPSL’s Peter Willis. He shared insights from a book on the theory of human development he’d read by Beck & Cowan (Spiral Dynamics); the essential point of the book is that individuals and societies progress through a values-based hierarchy which shifts from self-centred to systems-centred orientations. This resonated strongly with SustainAbility’s work with corporations on the need to build from the history of (commendable, but inadequate) unilateral corporate responsibility programmes to system-wide mobilisation for positive social and environmental outcomes (for more, see this article written for COP 17). The key shift this requires is from competitive to collaborative action. As Unilever’s Paul Polman puts it: ‘We will all have to work together – Pepsi will have to work with Coke, the US will have to work with China and Greenpeace will have to work with WWF.’ That connection is the next pre-condition of success, but a connection restricted here in Durban to dinner conversations and sideshows to the main event.

Disconnect 3

I have repeatedly noted from past COPs that the urgency of the climate challenge demands that we no longer wait for top-down UN frameworks and treaties before we act to avert climate catastrophes. And we are seeing some impressive unilateral actions by countries, cities, communities and companies to take voluntary action to address the climate challenge. SustainAbility’s focus is on the corporate sector and we are enthusiastic supporters of the few exemplary commitments to act on climate change by companies like Unilever, Wal-Mart, GE, Tesco and others. But – especially in recent COPs – the business community has, as I wrote in a blog after COP 16 in Cancun, ‘As I left last year’s failed climate change conference in Copenhagen, it dawned on me that the search for a new global agreement on climate change under the auspices of the United Nations is providing perfect cover for inaction by business leaders.’ I sense that here in Durban we will hear more of the same. Indeed, even the CPSL’s 2˚C Challenge Communiqué, which has attracted 350 signatories for COP 17, emphasises the responsibilities of government over companies’ own ability and obligations to act even in the absence of regulation. In relation to businesses’ role, the communiqué says: ‘We remain committed to implementing such (UN) frameworks and to engaging with governments in an active dialogue to create such a future.’ In other words, it is down to governments to set the rules and for industry to follow. Time to change tack – and where better than here in Durban?

I hope to make more positive connections in my blogs over the remaining days of this COP.

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