Durban Climate Summit – Time to Change Course?

Durban‘The UN climate talks in Durban were a failure and take the world a significant step back by further undermining an already flawed, inadequate multilateral system that is supposed to address the climate crisis…..We need to radically transform our global economy to create a more just and sustainable world. ‘   These words from Friends of the Earth International  (FOEI) reflect the anger – and possible new thinking – that greeted the outcome of the Durban climate change summit writes Phil Ward.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions (Millions of Tonnes)




% Change

















United Kingdom












Russian Federation
















To place the summit in context, the diagrams show carbon dioxide emissions since 1990, the base year under the Kyoto Protocol (adapted from CDIAC and not including emissions from other greenhouse gases or land-use changes).  Under that agreement (which the USA never joined and Canada, Japan and Russia are now leaving), the EU, USA and Japan were to cut their emissions by 8, 7 and 6% respectively.  Although the figures for the EU reduction look impressive, they are unsustainable, being based in large measure on the replacement of coal by gas for electricity generation and the relocation of manufacturing to the far-east.  They are also bolstered by the reductions that accompanied the collapse of the Eastern European economies in the 1990s – as is the figure for Russia.

The data testify to the utter failure of the Kyoto Protocol: despite the fancy financial instruments meant to encourage low-carbon development in the Global South, nothing of the sort has occurred and annual emissions are now nearly 50% higher than in 1990 – and projected to be 2 ½ times the 1990 level by 2020.  In one year, 2009-10, emissions rose by 8% on 1990 levels, when Kyoto was aiming for a 5.2% cut over 20 years.  Now, atmospheric concentrations (438ppm CO2 (eq.) in 2008) are well above the levels (350ppm) that are expected to lead to a 1.5oC average temperature rise.

The main outcomes of the Durban talks were to develop an agreement with “legal force, applicable to all” in 2015, for implementation by 2020 (currently with no figures for emissions reductions).  The Kyoto Protocol would continue: the EU would stick to its targets for GHG reductions by 2020 (almost achieved already, according to their own data), but mainly protecting the EU’s carbon trading scheme, set up under the Protocol.  A “Green Climate Fund” was set up, ostensibly to help developing countries with mitigation and adaptation, but in fact, according to FOEI, merely promoting a speculative carbon market bubble.

For the socialist left, the Durban débacle raises several issues.  First, the question of inter-governmental treaties to combat climate change.  This approach developed during the apparent détente of the late 1980’s: in particular, after the treaties against nuclear weapons signed by Gorbachev and Reagan and the Montreal Protocol to combat depletion of stratospheric ozone.

Although the scientific bodies set up by intergovernmental agreement – the IPCC on climate and the Convention on Biological Diversity – have made major contributions to science and awareness of these issues, it was always a very long shot that an international treaty could deliver serious action on climate change.  This is because energy extraction and use – and associated infrastructure – are huge sectors of the capitalist economy.  As shown above, even FOEI acknowledge the challenge to the economic system posed by fighting climate change.

For some, Durban means that there is no longer much point in pursuing international treaties.  For example, Chris Williams, author of “Ecology and Socialism”, argues that ‘we need to direct our energies to where we are more able to effect change, which is on the national level’.  The movement may become more activist, as NGOs come off the gravy train that is international summitting, and challenge strongly emitting industries and developments.  But, with NGOs there is always the possibility of a ‘shift…to profit-seeking’ technocratic ‘solutions’.

Durban also saw, for the first time, a ‘commitment’ to emissions targets with ‘legal force’ by all the less developed countries.  Although meaningless in terms of real, timely emissions cuts, this has political implications.  How this commitment came about is unclear: there have been suggestions that these countries’ rulers were bought off by the Green Climate Fund.  Now these ruling classes are acknowledging their own roles in climate change.  This should help the fight against their development strategies.

As the figures above show, the fight against carbon emissions in the LDCs is as crucial as that in the ‘West’.  In most LDCs, the change to a low carbon economy should be simpler than in the ‘West’, as there is less infrastructure to dispose of, a less-ingrained car culture and so forth.  Of course, that was even more the case 20 years ago.

Of course, the imperialist countries should pay some reparations for their historic emissions and the relocation of manufacturing from those countries should be accounted for.  However, the LDC’s are class societies: their rulers take decisions about development and energy resources to bolster their own interests and against the interests of the working class, domestically and internationally.

Finally, we could reassess the place of climate change in socialist strategy.  Climate change is different from many of the immediate issues that usually preoccupy day-to-day working class struggle.  For one thing, it is not that visible: short of a large, abrupt (regional) change in climate such as the Younger Dryas, when the shut-down of the Atlantic conveyor caused massive cooling in parts of the northern hemisphere, no single weather event or conditions can be definitively attributed to climate change.  There is a ‘disconnect’ between the objective importance of the issue and how it is subjectively perceived by the mass of working people.

When climate change ‘causes’ a famine or other disaster, proximate causes, such as landlessness, unsustainable development, or ruling class export or hoarding of food supplies, or dealing with state or other militia taking advantage of the situation, are justifiably the issues of immediate mass political concern, not carbon emissions.  Calls for cuts in carbon emissions don’t feature significantly on the ground in the Horn of Africa, and didn’t in New Orleans in 2005.

Durban raises the question as to how effective the anti-climate change movement has been.  Is the response of the ruling class a reaction to that movement?  Or are they jockeying for position in a possible future renewable energy market, spurred more by ‘peak oil’ and its cost implications than by climate change.  Or reacting to divisions in their own ranks (the insurance industry)?

Climate change is crucial to the future of humanity and needs to be properly integrated into a strategy for socialism.  This will allow the left to propose a new set of post-Durban tactics for the anti-climate change movement.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.