Shorbanu Khatun of Bangladesh stood out among the thousands of suited negotiators in Copenhagen. Khatun’s husband was killed by a tiger when their land was parched by extended dry seasons and flooded with salt water, forcing him to venture into the jungle to feed his family.
Then in May, Cyclone Aila destroyed Khatun’s home, along with those of 500,000 others, forcing her to live in an internally displaced persons’ camp on an embankment with thousands of other survivors. At high tide, they are flooded up to their chests. It is hard to imagine a more arduous existence.
Khatun describes her experience over five years: “Everything seems to have changed. It is suddenly too hot. There is a severe scarcity of rain. Because it is too hot, fish have reduced significantly in the river. Skin diseases, headache and diarrhoea have become regular phenomena… I want justice for my life; for my children’s lives and livelihoods.”
But it’s hard to see how the Copenhagen Accord delivers justice to people in poor countries that are least responsible for climate change but suffer its impacts right now.
The accord is an empty political statement, shredding two years of negotiations down to 2½ pages of purely aspirational goals.
While it recognises the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be kept below 2 degrees, it does not set out a trajectory for achieving this.
In February, countries will list their emissions reduction targets, which will be voluntary. They will have little to do with climate science and everything to do with the political climate in capitals around the world. If this is all the world can muster, we can expect a world that is 3.9 degrees warmer, year-round droughts in southern Africa, and water shortages affecting up to 4 billion additional people.
The promised $US100 billion a year by 2020, aimed at helping poor countries reduce their emissions and adapt to a changing climate, is less than half the amount needed. And the sad reality is the most vulnerable people will be lucky to get even a fraction of this amount, with rich countries likely to divert cash from existing aid commitments.
Nor is it clear how much will come from the public purse. But unless it does, there is no guarantee it will reach the right people in the right places. Crucially, the accord excludes the innovative revenue-raising mechanisms that could guarantee predictable flows of public money.
Developing countries were faced with an impossible choice between endorsing this inadequate compromise or watching the talks collapse.
Access to money was offered only to those countries that agreed to the accord. But the accord is not legally binding, nor does it set a timeline for reaching a legally binding agreement. It has as much chance of being honoured as a New Year’s resolution. We have no choice but to continue negotiating as soon as possible. A fair, safe and legally binding agreement must be reached in early 2010.
The Australian Government should see this accord as a floor, not a ceiling. It will be hard to encourage countries such as the US and China to make real progress on climate change, if our ambitions remain low.
Australia, as one of the highest per-capita polluters in the world, and the developed country most at risk from climate change, must increase its target to a science-based 40 per cent by the February deadline. We must also contribute our fair share of climate finance, based on our historical responsibility for emissions and our capacity to pay. With Treasurer Wayne Swan yesterday lauding Australia’s 19th consecutive year of growth, we can afford to do this.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd must make clear to Australians that significant changes – in our economy, our society and our relationships with the rest of the world – are needed to meet the climate change crisis.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has been irresponsible in simplifying the complex debate to trite sloganeering. As the alternative leader of our nation, he needs to understand that an effective response demands change, and this will have some costs now.
As numerous studies have shown, the cost of inaction will be far greater – it will cost the Australia dearly if we see a drop in agricultural yields in the country’s food bowl, or have to cope with a rise in the number of catastrophic bushfires and severe weather events.
Globally, 300,000 people die each year from climate change and that number is rising. People like Khatun are not victims; they are finding solutions. But they need the support of the rich countries that are responsible for three-quarters of the carbon in the atmosphere.
Khatun has now headed back to the camp she and other victims of Cyclone Aila have called home for seven months. “How do I tell them their misery has fallen on deaf ears?” she asks.
Andrew Hewett, Executive Director, Oxfam Australia
This opinion editorial was first published in The Age on 21 December.