Durban, El Salvador and Climate Change

Since Tropical Storm 12-E poured 55 inches of rain on El Salvador just two months ago, high-ranking government officials have jointed communities in the Lower Lempa region of Jiquilisco in speaking out against climate change. Unfortunately, the principal emitters of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change do not seem to be listening.

President Funes recently stated, “Climate change has harmful effects on societies, and particularly our country.” Minister of the Environment Herman Rosa Chávez said in the days after the flooding, “El Salvador is one place on earth that is already suffering from climate change.” Communities in the Lower Lempa held a forum earlier in the year in which residents discussed how climate change was already affecting their lives, including extreme droughts and flooding, as has been the pattern for the last few years.

Climate change has also been in the news because of the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference, which was held November 28 to December 11 in Durban, South Africa. For those in the Lower Lempa who are still recovering from the October floods AND trying to prepare for future extreme weather events, there was a lot at stake in the Durban negotiations. Climate change is a reality in their communities and if the global community does not agree to cut emissions, Tropical Storm 12-E will become a way of life.

The Economist summarized the Durban agreement as “a quid pro quo between the European Union and big developing-country polluters, especially China and India.” The agreement failed to consider the demands and pleas from smaller economies (and smaller emitters) such as El Salvador. The deal requires that EU countries continue reducing emissions of greenhouse gases responsible for climate change under the existing Kyoto protocol. The U.S. never signed on to Kyoto and Canada just dropped out, so the Durban agreement did not affect their current emissions-status. The main provisions of Kyoto were set to expire in 2012, but under the agreement they will be extended. In the meantime, developed and developing countries will work together to produce a new agreement by 2015 that will be implemented by 2020. The Kyoto protocol does not require developing or poor countries to reduce emissions, and under the Durban compromise they will remain exempt until the new agreement goes into affect.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) maintains a database of CO2 emissions for each country. Based purely on output, China emits the most greenhouse gases – 7,707 million metric tons of CO2 (2009). The U.S emits the second highest levels of greenhouse gases – 5,425 million metric tons of CO2 (2009). China, however, emits only 5.83 metric tons of CO2/capita, while the U.S. emits 17.67 metric tons of CO2/capita. India emits the 3rd highest levels of greenhouse gases – 1,591 million metric tons of CO2 (2009), which is only 1.38 tons/capita. El Salvador, in comparison, emitted only 5.93 million metric tons of CO2 (2009), which is 0.98 tons of CO2/capita.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, analyzing EIA figures from 2008, concluded,

“The picture from these figures is one where…. developed countries and major emerging economy nations lead in total carbon dioxide emissions. Developed nations typically have high carbon dioxide emissions per capita, while some developing countries lead in the growth rate of carbon dioxide emissions. Obviously, these uneven contributions to the climate problem are at the core of the challenges the world community faces in finding effective and equitable solutions.”

This was the tension at Durban. Larger emerging markets –China and India – are not bound by the Kyoto protocol and did not want to be bound under a new agreement. Their argument is that per capita, they emit far less than developed countries and limits on emissions would hinder their ability to develop and lift their populations out of poverty. This argument was more promulgated by India – China, which has fairly high levels of per capita emissions appears to realize that they need to take steps to cut emissions by developing clean energy sources.

Similarly, developed nations don’t want to put themselves at a “competitive disadvantage” with such large economies as China and India by agreeing to expensive emission reductions that developing countries don’t have to worry about. Many other countries participating in the Durban Conference are like El Salvador –small economies with relatively low emissions that are suffering the effects of climate change, but lack the economic or political capital to force the larger countries to cut their emissions.

As the Economist points out, the U.S. should be pleased with the outcome of the Durban Conference. The U.S. never ratified the Kyoto protocol because it did not require developing nations to cut emissions. The Durban agreement, however, lays the groundwork for requiring that all nations cut emissions of greenhouse gases, but puts it off until 2020.

This past Monday, Amy Goodman on Democracy Now dedicated her entire broadcast to the Durban Conference.  Kate Horner, who is a policy analyst for Friends of the Earth International, said on Monday’s show,

“The outcome of the talks here in Durban is, unfortunately, a very weak agreement that lacks in ambition, equity and justice. The Kyoto protocol… will continue only as an empty shell. Several countries – namely, Canada, Russia, and Japan – have refused to put new targets on the table, and the countries that have signed up have only offered really shockingly low levels of ambition… The United States has weaseled out of every promise that it has made, including to take on comparable action to other developed countries in line with its historic responsibility for contributing to this problem.”

She also said the Durban Platform, “is really not the important milestone in building a climate regime that many have called it, including the United States and the European Union… the most damaging part of it is it’s an attempt to shift the burden of this problem on developing countries who have contributed less.”

Salvadoran Environmental Minister Herman Rosa Chávez spoke at the conference, highlighting the effects of climate change on Central America. He called for the Conference to address three essential issues: fund the Green Climate Fund, expansion of adaption efforts, and serious mitigation commitments from developed and principal emitters.

This week, Salvadoran environmental groups held a forum in San Salvador to discuss the Durban Conference. In a statement released after the forum, the environmentalists criticized the international community and Salvadoran government for failing to take appropriate action to address climate change. Pointing out that international studies have identified El Salvador as one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, participants emphasized that if polluters don’t cut emissions, average temperatures in El Salvador will rise 6 degrees Celsius.

The Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Central American Integration System (SICA) met yesterday in San Salvador in advance of the SICA summit that begins today. The purpose of their meeting in advance of the summit was for the Consultative Group for the Reconstruction of Central America to create an action plan for helping the region adapt to climate change. Addressing the meeting on Wednesday, President Funes said,

“The proposal of the meeting with the Consultative Group is not to get resources, its to put the Central American region and particularly El Salvador on the international agenda, and that the impact that climate change is having is more visible.”

What is clear post-Durban is that the countries that are responsible for emitting the most greenhouse gases that is causing climate change are more motivated to protect their short-term economic development than preventing long-term disaster. It is also apparent that countries like El Salvador that emit low levels of greenhouse gases but are experiencing the extreme weather patterns associated with climate change have little influence over the discussions. As Tropical Storm 12-E showed Central Americans, doing nothing to prevent climate change is not really an option. But it seems that’s exactly what the principal emitters are doing – nothing.

 

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