Fiddling in Durban: COP 17 and the minor issue of climate change

The NZ election is out of the way and we are all suddenly busy in Wellington setting ourselves up for the 50th Parliament.

Asset sales, tax reform, benefits, superannuation, debt, the privacy of a public cup of tea – have riveted us for the past month or so – straight after the rugby.

In the Christchurch Press last week, the front page headlines had to do with a murder and the local building enquiry.  On page 2 of Section B, a modest-sized article noted that scientists have concluded that dangerous climate change for the planet was now irreversible.

We prefer not to have this kind of news on the main page of our daily newspapers, thank you.

It is two decades since the international community resolved to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would avert dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.   This was to be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally, ensuring that food production was not threatened and enabling economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.

That was the Rio Earth Summit, and the UN Framework Convention.  It set up the skeletal mechanism for effective and timely action through legal obligations – the international community of states, speaking with one voice on behalf of the global community of peoples, each state committed to pursuing its legitimate national interests in pursuit of the collective goal.

Twenty years later, 193 states, squabbling amongst themselves, have failed – the global interest torn to shreds by the mindlessly competitive pursuit of excessive national interests.

This week the 17th conference of the Framework Convention parties opened in Durban.  No agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol is in sight.  Instead, the conference legerdemain is of a ‘political transition period’, of ‘voluntary national commitments’, ‘muscular bilateralism’, ‘bottom-up action’.  The negotiators know, as surely as you and I, that this is self-deception, of humanity, by humanity, for humanity.  But they are paid to engage in ‘constructive ambiguity’, innocent of political responsibility – a legacy of 19th-century diplomatic craft.

In June, the IPCC scientists concluded that the average global temperature is set to rise 3.5 degrees C; the sea-level by some 1.25 m. by 2100.  What should we care?  That’s far off into the future – our grand-children’s dwelling-time on Earth, way beyond our electoral pocket, our personal gaze.

UN officials speak bravely of the fusion, ‘at the border’, between top-down and bottom-up, between legal compulsion and political volition, global objective and national interest.

UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and International Solidarity, Virginia Dandan, is a little more acerbic. The Durban conference, she said, represents a ‘make or break moment for humanity’. Failure to act would greatly damage future environmental negotiations. The world, she said

“…is calling for genuine international solidarity and multilateralism, and for its leaders to take a leap of faith in unison, and as one. There is great need for a radical mind-set change in order to bring back to the negotiating table the time-honoured values of humanity that have been forgotten after decades of market and profit-driven orientation.”

I must forward her comments to our new ministers for climate change, energy and economic development.  Perhaps they can draw it to the attention of the Prime Minister.  Perhaps he can act quickly and decisively.  Perhaps he can persuade other governments to follow suit.  Perhaps the problem of climate change can be solved in time.  Perhaps I can raise the matter in the House before Xmas – to remind him.

31 Comments Posted


    Malaysia’s has been a vocal voice of developing countries in all COP meetings and negotiation.

    Critical Analysis
    Malaysia’s approach toward a “common but differentiated responsibility” is rather holistic and in compliance with ASEAN spirit and ASEAN CHARTER.

    This is rather different when compared with the US approach along this framework of working reference.

    India, China and the majority of developing countries have contributed tremendously toward the targets set in the 1st Commitment Period of the Kyoto Protocol. The irony is the fact that developed countries have not performed their parts as agreed under the initial 1st Commitment Period of the Kyoto Protocol 1997.

    Developed countries unfortunately made not made significant achievement and performance as agreed according to the 1st Commitment Period.

    Perhaps, there will be positive development at the next COP-18.

    As far as the government of Malaysia is concerned, COP-18 will be a redefinition and a transformation of a legal binding document for climate change paradigm.

    Jeong Chun Phuoc
    Expert Consultant at a major law firm in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,
    and a Lecturer-in-Law
    and a pioneer advocate in Competitive Legal Intelligence(CLI)
    and a Reader in Syariah Competitive Legal Intelligence(sCLI)
    He can be reached at

    **The above professional analysis is the writer’s personal view and in no way represent the view/position of the research institutes/thinktanks/organisations to which he is currently attached to.

  2. Scary responses to the article about Kennedy – from outright denial to indignation that we should take any responsibility because we are small and can’t do much harm. MOral leadership is apparently not on the agenda any more, even though our stance on nuclear-free and other issues created a precedent. IF we can do nothing else, we can try to provide a better model – but nah, we want to be like all the rest, greedy and short-sighted.

  3. Trevor

    I heard something that sounded hopeful from a righty a day ago… a wail that Obama was going to slap on the financial transaction tax anyway. Related to Durban. The details were of course garbled but one can hope. It occurs to me that Obama can pass laws in the US with a simple majority… and might do so. What he cannot do is guarantee that they will stand longer than his administration.

    OTOH, if Newt is the Republican nominee Obama could well get another 4 years. If Newt were to *win* the dissolution of the Union would be completed within 4 years. The man is too stupid to do anything but hate.

  4. Tim Groser is hoping to tie our ETS market with that of other countries:

    Of course what would help is if we were a net CO2 sink rather than a net emitter. We could achieve this with strong policies on using renewable energy for more than the electricity sector, including using biomass instead of fossil fuels. For example, what are the carbon anodes at Tiwai point made from, and could they be made from biomass? We would also need policies to increase our forest and general biomass coverage, such as better pest control in national parks – a Green Party policy I believe.


  5. Kennedy has been getting stuck into the NACTs:

    “New Zealand has received a Fossil Award at Durban, the badge of dishonour for countries whose policies will cause most damage to the planet. Global emissions have increased by 49 per cent in the two decades since the international community resolved to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. New research shows emissions have increased by 3.1 per cent annually since 2000.”


  6. Trevor

    This crop of Republicans has about 10-15 more years to run before things get so ugly that their backers start getting sued for the damages. This would be similar to the the Tobacco debacle, and the same CEI was behind that one too.

    The revolution will come late, but it WILL arrive, and they won’t just be out of power. Their politics won’t survive at all and climate change will actually become the “religious” issue that they have all claimed it is… because people won’t be a lot smarter, just taking the climate change issue seriously.

    I expect something in the nature of an inquisition at that point.

    Not good. Not good at all, and too late by a score of years, but it will happen.


  7. Mike

    IIRC there was a plan to compress the wood and sink it in the deep ocean. Buried there it would be long term sequestration.

    There are ways…. the trees do the hardest part.


  8. Not much to show in the way of progress from COP17 so far:

    And the forecast isn’t looking good:
    “Underlying the need for urgent action to cap further temperature change, a report UK Met Office report released in Durban on Monday forecast global temperature would rise between three and five degrees Celsius this century if emissions are left unchecked.”


  9. We can help the process along. Turning biomass into charcoal makes a relatively inert material that can be used to improve soil quality and hold the carbon locked up for a decent period. I don’t know if this would be hundreds or thousands of years, but right now, anything that reduces CO2 levels would help mitigate the effects this century, even if further action might be needed in the centuries to come.


  10. Mike,

    It depends on the long term effect of planting trees. If the total “permanent” forest cover increases, then that expands the carbon sinks and locks away more carbon, even with the occasional forest fire. As Trevor mentioned, ultra long term, some of that carbon will get locked away for even longer in the form of coal and its precursors.

    However, as the aim for such schemes is to simply avoid some business costs, then I doubt the effect will be to increase the permanent forest cover, so it probably is a waste of time, at the moment. Governments and populations don’t yet have the right mindset to take effective actions. Any actions will probably be in the form of words that offer a good sound-bite. Remember that economic growth is the holy grail for every country, now. With that mindset, don’t expect anything significant to come out of Durban or any such future talks.


  11. Mike – established forests in a stable state are a store of carbon. It is only if the forest is destroyed that the carbon is released. If the forest is buried in an oxygen-free environment then it gradually turns to coal and gas.


  12. Trevor, Planting extra trees to absorb more CO2, in the long scheme of things does not work. Any carbon sequestered by the growing trees is ultimately released back into the atmosphere. eg the tree gets destroyed by fire, decay, milled for timber then the house built from said trees is eventually demolished and treated wood sent to landfill. All these mechanisms return the carbon to the air, unless you can store the wood some how in perpetuity then planting trees or investing in tree planting will have a zero long term effect and thus is a complete waste of time.

  13. Trevor – I have to doubt that meaningful agreement can be reached. In the US the issue would be ratification of the treaty which requires a 2/3 majority in the Senate. Expectations that such can be had in the USA have to be zero, no matter what Obama is willing to sign up for.

    That’s really the basic problem… Durban can’t get ratified in the USA.

    Given that limitation, and you can be sure that the Chinese are well aware of it, there is nothing effective that can come out of it.

  14. There is a protest at the door of the climate change conference from a large group of women African farmers who are directly affected by climate change:

    They have good reasons:
    “A report on climate change and extreme weather earlier this month by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts more droughts for large swathes of Africa, raising the spectre of famine in regions where daily life is already a hand-to-mouth experience for millions.”


  15. One of the frustrating things about AGW and ocean acidification is that many of the measures to combat both are the same measures that would also help with the other looming crises of peak oil and peak gas. In this respect, DoC and private enterprise seem to be leading where the NACTs fear to tread, by such practical steps as installing solar power supplies on islands which were relying totally on diesel or petrol-powered generators, and CHIME’s wave-powered generator for the Chatham Islands.


  16. We NGO representatives present are pushing for technology transfer and climate financing that will help developing states in transition.

    It is unfortunate but true, that trying to make this “fair” is going to be the death of it. Fair would see the fat cats running the world today take a haircut that would leave them as bald as Kevin Hague. They won’t do that until they are SURE the alternative is death and the might not do it then… most of them have seriously lost their way.

    Which means that “climate financing” as part of these goals is unlikely to get through the right wing rhetoric that turns it into “wealth transfer”. The goal is FIRST to get realistic limits on CO2 equivalent emissions. Agreement on that needs to happen. I’d suggest that a position that pigovian carbon taxes being implemented globally is the most appropriate first agreement. Some small part of the return of the taxes to the electorate at large gets to go to a general fund that distributes it to the poorer nations but make that bit SMALL.

    Then negotiate it and the taxes larger once the taxes are working and the economies can stand the jolt.

    The financial revolution the world needs is rather different. If it is tied to Climate Change with the expectation that Climate Change can pull it along… well that isn’t working at all well. We’ll die waiting for the wealthy of this earth to give up their ill-gotten gains.


  17. Irrespective of how much global warming we are now locked into, it will be even worse if we don’t take action to reduce our emissions. We also need to increase absorption of CO2, which we can by increased planting of trees and simple measures like controlling pests in existing forests.

    We will also need to adapt and mitigate because of our failure to act earlier.


  18. Tony: I am writing from the DEC bloggers’ centre inside COP17. A massive amount of the discussion here is about climate change adaptation. We NGO representatives present are pushing for technology transfer and climate financing that will help developing states in transition.

    If anyone is interested, you can follow the only NZ NGO here at Durban, the New Zealand Youth Delegation, on our website: I will also be blogging on, explaining MFAT’s positions to an international audience.

  19. The National government seem blind and/or indifferent to the consequences of ‘business as usual’, but surely there must be some in that party who can understand the seriousness of the issue. Would there be any advantage in making legislation relating to climate change subject to a conscience vote in the house? I was thinking of the Southland lignite for a start. Only a couple of Nats would need to vote against it (and the rest of the opposition of course)
    Somehow we must get the public & MPs to see that this is an issue that affects all of humanity and worth crossing the floor for.

  20. The “problem” of climate change can’t be solved. It’s a predicament that has to be adapted to. Even if we stop all emissions right now, we’re still looking at a rise of 2 degrees or more. It’s nice to have hope but that hope has to be grounded in reality. It’s now a problem of mitigation and adaptation.

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