The Common Good
March 2012

Too Little, Too Late?

by Francesca de Gasparis | March 2012

The U.N. climate change talks in South Africa were a major disappointment -- but the struggle continues.

The Green Belt  Movement, a grassroots NGO from Kenya, sent staff in November to the 17th U.N. climate change summit (COP17) in Durban, South Africa. We wanted to share our experiences using carbon offset funding with rural communities to plant trees that restore habitat. Our mixed experience highlights some real problems faced when converting policy to practice.

Green Belt has a project financed by the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a carbon offset program set up under the Kyoto Protocol. But ours is one of the few CDM tree-planting projects worldwide that has focused on grassroots engagement, indigenous tree species, and locations chosen to restore critical watersheds. The mechanism’s criteria do not distinguish between such projects and monoculture commercial plantations of non-native species. The challenges our project faced, including the lack of encouragement for locally appropriate plantings, will, if not addressed, be replicated by the new Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation process, which is backed by the World Bank. While the Norwegian government and others have said that the reducing emissions process is one of the few areas that showed progress at Durban, effective criteria to ensure the success of the process are not yet in place.

Like many NGOs, the Green Belt Movement condemned the Durban talks’ final outcome as too little, too late to stop catastrophic climate change. The planet is still on track to increase in temperature up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit this century—which will be catastrophic, especially for much of Africa.

The talks’ conclusion fell short of mandating ambitious-enough emission cuts. This means the next commitment period for reduction in emissions will only come into force in 2020, long past the point of irreversible climate change. During the Durban talks, countries including the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand received Fossil of the Day awards from the Climate Action Network for their obvious efforts to weaken and block a potential deal.

But that is not the whole story of what happened at the climate change talks: Outside the official negotiations, faith leaders had an unprecedented presence, and NGOs, including the Green Belt Movement, gave voice to the reality of climate change that is already affecting Africans.

The Durban talks began with a mass faith rally for climate justice. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, alongside leaders of many different religions, called on governments to show moral leadership and address the disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable countries, which are not responsible for that change. Faith leaders presented a petition for climate justice from people across Africa. Bishop Geoff Davies, head of Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute, spoke of climate “apartheid” practiced by rich nations trying to keep power and wealth to themselves.

On the final Friday, NGOs occupied the building where the main negotiators were meeting, protesting the lack of urgency in the talks with singing and slogans reminiscent of anti-apartheid activism, and with “mic check” call and response evoking the Occupy movement. From inside the talks many country negotiators, equally frustrated by the obstructionism, applauded.

For us at the Green Belt Movement, the Durban talks were a sad time: Our founder, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, had died suddenly two months before. Maathai had planned to speak at the talks on the urgent need to take immediate action on climate change. Instead, a number of special memorials were held for Maathai, including videotaped remarks from President Barack Obama, his only direct contribution to the talks. From one former community organizer (now president of the U.S.) to another activist with Kenyan heritage—a woman who fought all her life for justice—action continues to speak louder than words.

Francesca de Gasparis is Europe director of Green Belt Movement International, which supports and scales up the work of Green Belt Movement Kenya.

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