Climate Justice at COP 8

By Angela Bischoff, Delhi, India.

While UN reps in Delhi negotiate technical fixes to weasel out of their international climate commitments, farmers and urban poor rally for “climate justice”.

Cycling in Delhi, India is a game of chicken, swerving to dodge all manner of vehicles and cows – yes, cows – that are moving in unpredictable directions, too often directly at me. Admittedly, I sometimes forget which side of the road to ride on, but clearly so do many others!

With my long Indian “salvar camise” dress and scarf blowing behind me, and my helmet fastened tight, I must look like an alien to the Indians spilling out of buses, or literally sitting on top of each other on their bicycle rickshaws and mopeds.

With my 24-speed hybrid bicycle, I buzz through the traffic like an anarchist on speed, occasionally nicking vehicles, but judiciously avoiding the holy bovines and the colourfully clad people balancing baskets on their heads, skillfully weaving their way through the mass of belching and bleeping traffic. To my surprise, I’m enjoying this chaos. I laugh aloud at the sheer thrill of being part of such an obstacle course.

The thick, black diesel haze that obscures both sun and stars has me hacking, and yearning for Toronto’s smog soup. I wrap my scarf around my face hoping to filter out the dust, and as an added bonus am relieved at the sudden halt of the incessant “hello, hello ma’am, hello!”

I make it to the Indian NGO (non-governmental organizations) rally in one piece, and feeling triumphant. I’m in awe to see some 7000 labour reps, environmentalists, displaced people and working-poor marching, chanting, dancing and drumming their fervor for climate justice. They are bound for the COP 8 taking place just a few miles away, a UN meeting of world governments assembled to discuss the growing threat of climate change.

Clearly, the new movement – coined “Climate Justice” and motivated largely by the less-industrialized countries – is in full force here in India. “It is the poor and the marginalized who are, and will continue to be, the hardest hit by the impacts of climate change. The biggest injustice of climate change is that the hardest hit communities are the least responsible for creating the problem” writes Rita Nahata for the India Climate Justice Forum.

The rising number of extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, and storms are already more pronounced in tropical and sub-tropical countries, where people already live a precarious existence, lacking food, shelter or insurance and government safety nets. Yet their ecological footprint is but a fraction of ours.

This ecological debt of the north to the south continues to grow, despite our awareness of the impacts, and southern countries are rightly demanding compensation as well as their fair share of a clean atmosphere. At stake is how this translates into more precise climate change lingo by world bodies addressing the issue. They begin calculations with a lifetime-per-capita allotment of greenhouse gas emissions that they estimate the earth can sustain over a period of time. By those calculations, western countries would have to reduce per capita emissions substantially, while less-industrialized nations would be allowed to slightly increase them.

“Everybody’s got to have a right to equal entitlement of the atmosphere. It’s a global commons,” says Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation. “There’s a growing political lobby for such equity within European governments and even industry, lead by the insurance industry.”

The rally progresses but is blocked by the police, preventing us from getting to the UN-sponsored climate negotiations. So I head off on my own to negotiate the obstacle course.

Although each of 4 people I ask for directions gives me a different answer, I eventually find my way to COP 8 (Eighth Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC), which is charged with moving the Kyoto Protocol forward. The Delhi meeting follows on the Kyoto Protocol – the only international legal instrument the world has to engage countries in greenhouse gas reduction strategies.

My expectations aren’t high. Kate Hampton, of Friends of the Earth International, says the process “is stuck in technocratise, forgetting the original principles as set out at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.”

John Byrne, of the Centre for Energy and Environmental Policy, tells me “these discussions are less an ecological debate than an economic debate. What’s really going on is the commodification of the atmosphere, where the transition to a low-carbon future is seen to be best handled in the global marketplace”.

We all know how the poor fare in the global marketplace.

And what of Canada’s role? Well, we’ve scored high in the Fossil of the Day awards ( given out by the non-governmental community. In fact, we’re just behind Saudi Arabia and the US for: our dogged attempts to get credit for exporting gas (while not being penalized for exporting dirtier energy); for proposing that large monoculture plantations be considered sinks; for trying to weaken the requirements of industrial countries to report progress; for preventing input on sinks from the NGO community; for using stall tactics; and more.

But it’s not all back-pedaling coming from the Canadian contingent. Alex Boston, of the David Suzuki Foundation, gives Canada the “thumbs up” for fully supporting a proposal from the EU that essentially emphasized the eventual goal of emissions equity as well as radical emission reductions (more than 50%) based on science rather than the marketplace, an extremely progressive position.

But actions speak louder than words. Whether Delhi’s COP 8 succeeds or fails isn’t all that important to the people at the rally; the COP 8 is just one step on what is expected to be a long journey toward climate justice. Even meeting the Kyoto Protocols’ targets and timetables will yield only marginal improvement in their lives: by all calculations, at best any benefits of greenhouse gas reductions won’t be evident for almost two decades.

Even with slight emission reductions, inevitable climate change impacts will make things for the world’s poor far, far worse, as their access to energy, water, and social protection will probably dwindle from now on.

Government representatives at the COP 8 talk the talk. Advocates here walk to a protest to demand “Climate Justice” for their children and their children’s children. For our children, too.

Tragic that most of us are still not walking with them!

Loopholes notwithstanding, majority support in the Canadian parliament and amongst the general public for ratification of Kyoto has me hopeful. And when Canada signs on, bicycle bells around the world will be clanging in celebration.