Durban Conference Fails to Tackle Big Environmental Problems

The United Nations Development Programme’s 2011 Human Development Report calls for sustainable and equitable growth as a means of battling the imminent threat that climate change poses to our globe.  

The most vulnerable populations in developing countries, namely women and indigenous groups, will experience climate change and its adverse effects a disproportionate amount due to reliance on natural resources and geographic location. The chilling bottom line of the 2011 HDR, that our planet cannot sustain current growth rates, should prompt swift, deliberate action on the part of individuals, government officials, heads of state, and multilateral organizations. Instead, we get the Durban Conference.

The UN climate conference in Durban, South Africa, exemplifies the political deadlock that arises when the international community discusses carbon emission floors, greenhouse gas controls, and environmental paradigm shifts. The conference, which started with hopeful language and the desire to band together to fight the “common concern of humankind," turned into China and India defending their claims to unabated growth and development. Eventually, they conceded to U.S. pressure and agreed to partake in the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, a platform wherein every country will fall under the same legal administration to enforce greenhouse gas reductions.

This seems like progress, so what’s the problem? The aforementioned legal administration will not be put in place until 2015 at the earliest, though the painfully slow process of renegotiations and ratification by member states would take an additional few years. Since 2009, both China and India experienced increases in carbon emissions by roughly 10%. As there is currently no incentive for either country to reduce emissions until a legally binding administration is in force, China and India, along with other rapidly expanding developing countries, will continue current rates of growth. Can our planet, particularly those in developing countries, afford to wait another five to ten years for substantial progress?

In short, we cannot. The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), introduced in the 2010 HDR, measures deficits in health, education, and living standards by looking at both numbers of deprived people and the intensity of their deprivations. This year’s MPI examined deprivations in access to modern cooking fuel, clean water, and basic sanitation. In developing nations, sixty percent of people experience one of these deprivations, and fourty percent experience two or more. In countries with a low Human Development Index (HDI), sixty percent lack access to clean water and more than 3 million children per year die of environment-related diseases. Citizens of these multidimensional poor countries are systematically denied choices: the choice to receive medicine for an easily treatable disease, the choice to not be hungry, and the choice to live a healthy, productive life as defined by them. These deprivations are not only unsustainable, but also fundamentally un-free.

Time will tell if the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action spurs the adoption of policies that drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions or if this is a repackaged 21st century Kyoto Protocol. World leaders must look to the 2011 Human Development Report as a guideline for implementing far-reaching policies focused on sustainability and equity, and they must do it fast.

Only when policymakers and citizens alike recognize that what’s best for our planet and the disenfranchised of developing countries is also what’s best for individual country growth will efficient action be taken towards combating climate change. Let’s just hope it’s sooner rather than later.

Photo Credit: Oxfam International