Is anyone listening to the new leaders on climate?

By Cecilia Pineda

In the months prior to the COP15 in Copenhagen, President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed convened the first meeting of the Climate Vulnerable Forum and urged leaders to make active carbon neutral pledges to arm their convictions that their survival depends on all countries pursuing low-carbon economies.

Nasheed believed that a bloc of carbon-neutral developing countries could move the outcome of Copenhagen.

To Nasheed’s disappointment, not all of the countries jumped on the carbon-neutral bandwagon and it is unlikely whether these countries could have prevented the train-wreck of Copenhagen which sacrificed 189 voices for the sake of 5. Nonetheless, out of the ashes of the COP15 we have begun to see the rise of new leaders and alliances, which rally under the progressive banner and promote low-carbon growth at home and abroad.

The shift in developing countries to pursue intense mitigation actions emerged from a frustration in the slow, and sometimes stand-still, rate of progress in the international climate negotiations.
At the COP17 in Durban twelve countries carry Carbon Neutral pledges.  This incongruent mix consisting of both developed and developing countries includes Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Iceland, Maldives, Monaco, New Zealand, Niue, Norway, Pakistan, Portugal, Samoa, and Tuvalu.[i] Many of these countries participate in either or both the Climate Vulnerable Forum[ii] and the Cartagena Dialogue[iii], both of which  believe low-carbon economies are the pathway to sustainable development, high growth, poverty eradication, and building a fair and more equitable society.   Under these alternative spaces, participating countries have committed themselves to low-carbon development.[iv]

This year’s COP witnesses a proliferation of side events showcasing countries’ advancement in low-carbon economies. Events such as “Showcasing low-carbon transitions in Cartagena Dialogue countries”, “Europe on the way to a low carbon future,” “Green Technology and China’s Climate Adaptation: Toward a low carbon society”, and “Low Carbon Development in the Asian Countries” pronounce countries’ commitments to real action outside of the negotiating rooms.

But who are they calling on, and who is listening?

In a recent paper “Pathways and Partnerships for Progress for Durban and Beyond,” Farahana Yamin presents a new climate-relevant definition of leadership to assess these progressive countries and alliances within the negotiations. This leadership is no longer defined by the previous constraints of historic groupings, but rather it entails countries and groups which “demonstrate political leadership in pursuing a low-carbon, climate-resilient pathway domestically, as well as calling for others to pursue this internationally.”[v]

The EU has championed itself as leaders in the climate regime since the inception of the Kyoto Protocol. EU’s decarbonizing initiative comes from both economic incentives (realizing the rising and unstable costs of importing oil) and their desire to be climate leaders and demonstrate the benefits of a low-carbon economy. But today the EU has grown to comprise 27 member states, and many of the new members, along with the current conservative Polish EU Presidency, question the drive toward low-carbon growth and climate leadership. The crisis in the Euro Zone has raised fears of investing in renewable energy, even though it could generate jobs and would pay for itself over the years. In the current climate, some of the EU countries wish to use other member countries’ additional carbon cuts to meet the EU’s collective CO2 emissions reduction goals.

Perhaps this is why many of the climate ‘progressive’ European countries, such as the UK, Denmark, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands, have participated in the Cartagena Dialogue. More than advocating for fellow countries to transition to low-carbon economies, the Cartagena Dialogue focuses on finding the areas of convergence between participating developing and developed countries to create “an ambitious, comprehensive and legally binding regime in the UNFCCC.”

Still, countries participating in the Dialogue use the informal space to share information with each other on how to move toward low-carbon economies, and they are open to sharing this information with countries which have similar objectives.

The Climate Vulnerable Forum, which recently developed, uses its low-carbon actions to call others to action. These low-emitting countries not only have a smaller ‘historical responsibility’ to addressing climate change than developed countries, but also they have comparatively limited financial resources, technological support, and capacity. For many of them, which are also on the front-line of climate change, this is just the point; if they, the ‘less responsible’ and ‘less able’ are launching themselves into the battle toward carbon neutrality, as said by Maldivian President Nasheed “those opposed to change have nowhere left to hide.”

Yesterday the Maldives, which has become some what of a poster-child for carbon neutrality, announced their willingness to place their carbon-neutral target as a legally binding commitment.

Are we listening to these countries? With the exception of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, we don’t hear many stories of these countries holding these pledges and low-carbon actions as bargaining chips. At the very least, they demonstrate a commitment to the ideas enshrined in the UNFCCC. And while they may weaken the age-old game of chicken “We won’t move unless you do,” we have to remember that the negotiations have taken up the nature of a long game. It may be a while before we see much movement from the detractors.

[i] Climate Neutral Network (CNET) The United Nations Environmental Program’s (UNEP) Climate Neutral Network has yet to recognize Samoa and Tuvalu.[ii] Countries participating in the Climate Vulnerable Forum: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Costa RicaEthiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Kiribati, Madagascar, Maldives, Nepal, Philippines. Rwanda, Saint Lucia, Tanzania, Timor-Leste,Tuvalu, , Vanuatu, Vietnam
[iii] Countries that have participated in or more meetings of the Cartagena Dialogue: Antigua & Barbuda, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Burundi, Chile, Colombia, Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, European Commission, France, Germany, Guatemala, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Malawi, Maldives, Marshall Islands, México, Netherlands, New ZealandNorway, Panama, Peru, Poland, Rwanda, Samoa, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, Tajikistan, Timor-Leste, United Kingdom and Uruguay.
[iv] The Climate Vulnerable Forum developed and adopted the Dhaka Ministerial Declaration of the Climate Vulnerable Forum in November, 2011. This declaration laid out the forum’s demands for Durban and also inscribed their commitment to low carbon development. Countries participating in the Cartagena Dialogue have expressed their commitment to pursue low-carbon economies both domestically and internationally; they have included this sentiment into their mission statement.
[v] Yamin, Farahana. “Pathways and Partnerships for Progress for Durban and Beyond”


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