COP 17: What do the failures of the UN climate regime mean for climate action?

Alice Harrison, Communications Coordinator for TI’s Climate Governance Integrity Programme, reports from South Africa as the 2011 climate conference reaches its conclusion.

As the sun rose on South Africa yesterday a burst of applause sounded from Durban’s conference hall as UN negotiators commended themselves for reaching an “historic agreement” on climate change.

“We have worked together to save tomorrow today,” declared the COP 17 President, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, as she stopped the clock on a final all-night round of deliberations.

Yet beyond the confines of this diplomatic circle a very different narrative was taking shape.

Christian Aid berated, “a profoundly distressing outcome” that amounted to a “betrayal of people across the world.” Greenpeace referred to, “nothing more than a voluntary deal that’s put off for a decade.”

This deal – the Durban platform- disappoints on two major counts. It doesn’t oblige wealthy countries to amounts or timelines for delivering climate aid to developing nations. And it lacks the level of commitment needed to halt global warming.

Negotiations on legally-binding emissions cuts will continue until the end of 2015, and any treaty would not come into force before 2020.

The window to keeping temperature rise to below two degrees Celsius is thus closed – heralding a future of climate extremes, food scarcity and mass displacement.

An historic agreement? The measure of success of the UN climate process seems to have become preservation not of the environment, but of the process itself.

At TI it is our mandate to help prevent ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’. Consecutive climate conferences have raised serious questions over the true interests that delegates are defending at the negotiating table, versus those which find no representation.

Political will appears to be repeatedly compromised by short-sighted domestic agendas and pending elections, and the influence peddling of carbon traders and corporate lobbyists rumbles away beneath the veneer of diplomacy. This power is not entrusted, it has been taken.

Honesty, integrity and resolve are urgently needed to prevent the UN process from failing not itself but the planet and its population.

The other face of the climate regime

So what happens when politics fails? Enter business.

Underneath this media-hyped, meta-level of international negotiations, climate action is progressing. But driven not so much by governments as by corporations.

A recent report shows that of the US $97 billion in climate finance that has been invested in advancing low-carbon, climate resilient development, US $72 billion came from the private sector.

The reality is that governments cannot go this alone. Taxpayer contributions simply aren’t enough to fund the transition to a green economy, or the major infrastructural projects needed to adapt to the barrage of floods, droughts and storms that awaits us.

This could signal a paradigm shift in public-private investment.

That shift, if fashioned right, could be very positive. After all, businesses tend to trump governments when it comes to effective spending. They also have bountiful recourse to technical know-how, capacity and innovation.

But ensuring that climate finance benefits not companies but the people who really need it will require major changes to the way that business does business.

Oxfam’s exposure of the bloody evictions of Ugandan communities by corporate developers is a harbinger of the potential damage wrought by unfettered corporate interests. A new report from Peru shows how investors are forcing illiterate indigenous communities to sign their land away to carbon offsetting schemes.

Such crimes can and will occur unless governments reign in the private sector and close gaping loopholes in corporate transparency and oversight across sectors, borders and institutional boundaries.

Companies, like governments, must be held to account for their spending and actions, and should suffer stiff penalties for wrongdoing. Only then will climate finance contribute to development that is truly fair, equitable and sustainable.

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