Not One Track, not Two Tracks, but a Completely New Track: A response from Nicola Bullard to Jan Pronk

Commentary article by Nicola Bullard on 'Beyond Copenhagen', by Jan Pronk.

by Nicola Bullard

For those of us who consider ourselves part of the climate justice movement, the spectacular failure of the Copenhagen climate talks was not only expected, but almost welcomed. This may be a surprising reaction from movements and organizations deeply committed to ecological sustainability and social justice, yet many of us knew that the only likely 'deal' in Copenhagen would be inadequate and unfair and would perpetuate the current ineffective neo-liberal climate policies of offsets, carbon markets and the clean development mechanism. Thankfully, the 'failure' of Copenhagen averted the worst (at least for now) and the movement will live to fight another day. It has been clear since Bali that none of the Annex 1 countries is willing to make the deep domestic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions necessary to give us even half a chance of avoiding runaway climate change, let alone leaving any 'atmospheric space' for the rest of the world. Nor were any of the Annex 1 countries willing to mobilize the money needed to deal with the current and future impacts of climate chaos on the South, or indeed agree to anything that deviated from business as usual.

Clearly, the rich countries want to have their cake and eat it too and having benefitted from decades of fossil fuel-driven economic growth, they are now trying to shift the burden to the South, by blaming China, in particular, for 'spoiling' the Copenhagen deal and insisting that developing countries take on the burden of emission reductions. In the lead-up to the COP15, developing countries had shown goodwill and commitment in the negotiations and in the past year many of the concrete proposals on finance and technology were tabled by the Group of 77 and China. Yet there has been no reciprocity on the part of the rich countries. For this reason, the G77 and China have defended the two-track approach -- the Kyoto Protocol track and the 'long term cooperative action' track (which Jan Pronk rather confusingly calls the US track) -- because they believe that the only way to maintain the legal instrument that differentiates between those who have historical responsibility for climate change and those who don't, is the Kyoto Protocol. From the limited perspective of the current negotiations, Jan Pronk's desire for the two tracks to merge is problematic given that this is precisely what the US wants too. The US' game plan is to duck out of its obligations under Kyoto by simply getting rid of Kyoto and replacing it with a voluntary and non-binding agreement. Indeed, the dubious Copenhagen Accord is just one step in this strategy.

From a climate justice perspective (or even from the banal viewpoint of effectiveness) there is a larger critique of the whole negotiations that goes beyond debates of whether we need one track or two tracks. Quite simply, the current negotiations in the UNFCCC fail to address to the root cause of climate change: the massive use of fossil fuels. Instead of going to the heart of the issue, the Kyoto Protocol relies on tried and failed neo-liberal market mechanisms, such as privatization and financialization of the commons (especially forests and the atmosphere) and expanding financial markets to trade 'carbon' which allow polluters in rich countries to continue polluting (and profiting) as usual by buying 'credits' from the South. The first phase of Kyoto has failed to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions in Annex 1 countries simply because it was designed by the polluters, for the polluters.

Merging the two tracks will not resolve the fundamental flaws in the climate negotiations, but neither will keeping the two tracks. Instead, the negotiations need to be totally reframed with the objective of fundamentally transforming the current economic system that pollutes the planet and damages people. A just and effective response to climate change would be based on the recognition of the ecological debt owed to the South by the North. In addition to reparations, this new framework would entail: reclaiming and expanding the commons (atmosphere, water, land, forests, transport, energy, technology, etc) and ensuring that it is sustainably managed for mutual benefit rather than short term profit and accumulation; rapidly reducing overconsumption, especially in the North; setting legally enforceable targets for the transition to community-controlled renewable energy; progressively shifting agricultural production from chemical and transport intensive agro-industry to local and organic small holder production; limiting and eventually eliminating military expenditure; progressive taxes and redistribution both within and between countries; empowering workers to determine the terms of their (inevitable) transition to the low carbon future; stopping deforestation through demand-side regulation; stopping new oil and coal exploitation and progressively phasing out the use of fossil fuels; and so on, and so on.

You may say we are dreamers, but it is no more absurd to believe that we can (because we must) completely rewrite the logic of the UN negotiations, than it is to imagine, as Jan Pronk does, that a group of 'wise men and women' can deliver a 'well-designed single track' that will magically overcome the reality of entrenched power and take us into a sustainable future.

Related articles: (1) Beyond Copenhagen by Jan Pronk; and (2) Beyond Copenhagen: A response from Mikael Roman to Jan Pronk.


Nicola Bullard is a senior associate with Focus on the Global South and coordinates the climate justice. She is also an associate editor of the SID journal Development. Focus is a member of the Climate Justice Now! (CJN!) network.


Photo: Kicki/flickr