Durban negotiators need to focus on children

This post originally appeared on Rooted – Crikey’s environment blog – on 7 December 2011. The permalink is here.

It’s not grabbing news headlines but ministers and officials from 192 countries are gathered in South Africa this week to debate the issue everyone has opinion on — climate change.

Often overlooked in these talks is the necessity to engage children in solving the climate crisis. After all, it is children that stand to lose the most if we are unable to prevent dangerous climate change. Despite low expectations for outcomes two-weeks of discussions in Durban will produce, there are several key issues on the negotiating table that would benefit from the inclusion of the perspective of children and young people.

The first of these is agreement on legally binding targets for reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases. The Kyoto Protocol is the only legally binding agreement on climate change. It is due to expire next year. Developed countries are showing reticence to extend the Protocol to a second commitment period. This is a mistake. Extending the Protocol and locking in the emissions reduction targets countries have already committed to would provide a much needed boost to the effort to persuade high emitting developing countries to adopt legally binding targets. This in turn will make it easier for the US to commit to legally binding targets.

Even if all major emitters commit to the emissions reduction targets that scientists tell us are required to avoid crossing the 2°C threshold, beyond which truly catastrophic impacts lie, the world will already experience a temperature increase of at least 1.4°C by century’s end due to the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. While this doesn’t sound like much, the potential impacts on the poor and vulnerable are immense. Summer heatwaves will be hotter and longer, increasing heat-stress and the likelihood of fires. Cyclones will be more intense, destroying homes, schools and hospitals and rainfall will be more erratic, resulting in more frequent droughts, crop failures and flash floods.

To manage these impacts, and the much greater impacts that will occur if mitigation efforts fail, the poor and vulnerable require assistance. Finance to help people in developing countries adapt to the changing climate is the second key issue for Durban. Developed countries including Australia who, by the way, lead the pack in global efforts to help developing countries respond to burgeoning crises like increasing water insecurity have increased their level of assistance for adaptation. The problem is the funds currently available are not enough to address the impacts of current climate variability, let alone to help communities prepare for anticipated future impacts.

Writing in the Financial Times recently, United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon,highlighted this issue, stating, “adaptation must be a top priority for the entire world. Climate impacts will be with us for decades to come as a result of emissions released today. Developing countries need significantly scaled-up resources and technology to adapt. This is a smart investment in a safer, more stable, prosperous world.”

In Durban, negotiators will try to finalise the design of the Green Climate Fund— the key financing mechanism to help developing countries respond to climate change. The fund is projected to manage up to $100 billion annually by 2020. Developed countries need to ensure this climate finance does not divert funding from other development priorities. At least 50% of money available through the fund should be earmarked for adaptation and it needs to be made available through a fair and accessible mechanism that prioritises the most vulnerable. Establishing a dedicated funding window for civil society organisations will help ensure funds reach those most in need.

Today’s children have the most to lose in the game that our leaders are playing with the climate. Children and young people need to be at the centre of decision-making on reducing emissions and responding to inevitable impacts. And they are already making their voices heard through organisations like the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, which has campaigned for years to get climate change to the top of the agenda. Despite their efforts, and the work of organisations like Save the Children, the current negotiating fails to acknowledge the rights of children and young people. This is a glaring omission. The 193 countries, including Australia, that have ratified the Convention on Rights of the Child recognise that “every child has the inherent right to life” and have committed to ensure the “survival and development” of children. Neither of these goals will be attainable in a world suffering the catastrophic impacts of runaway climate change.

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, popularly known as the Earth Summit. It was at this summit that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was established. The Earth Summit also resulted in broad acceptance of the notion of sustainable development – defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The last 20 years have proven we are not as good as our word. We are compromising our children’s futures.

Here’s a radical suggestion: let’s ask children what kind of world they want to inherit. It’s not difficult to imagine what they will say. The real question is, are we able to meet their expectations?

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