Respect for Nature was at the centre of the meeting on climate change held at Cochabamba in Bolivia.

(G Panicker) FIRST there was Copenhagen. Then it was Cochabamba’s turn. This Bolivian city last month hosted a conference on climate change. Its central message: The people must take charge.BACK TO BASICS

The Bolivian conference was held in a football stadium. It drew some 31,000 people including environmental activists and indigenous groups from 140 countries, and officials from 48 countries 

This summit was to look at climate change from the perspective of those being affected most. And it sought to exert people pressure on governments for more ambitious and inclusive action.

The conference, late last month, was ponderously styled the Peoples’ World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. At the end, it adopted a People’s Agreement.

It was convened by Evo Morales, the first indigenous President of Bolivia, and billed as an alternative to the Copenhagen Accord, a product of closed-door diplomatic wrangling and part of the United Nations’ process on climate change.

In contrast, the Bolivian conference was held in a football stadium. The conference drew some 31,000 people including environmental activists and indigenous groups from 140 countries, and officials from 48 countries.

Roundtables on 17 global warming-related issues produced alternative proposals for Cancun, the venue of the UN-sponsored conference at year’s end. Forests, water and climate debt and financing were the issues that dominated.

Respect for Nature was at the centre of this meeting. Mr Morales said indigenous people have been living in harmony with nature, without over-exploiting natural resources. And their knowledge can make unique contribution to the climate battle. The principal cause for environmental problems is capitalism.

‘Either capitalism dies, or Mother Earth dies,’ he said.

The conference adopted a draft universal declaration of Mother Earth rights to prevent further deterioration of the ecosystem.

The meeting wants developed countries to cut emissions by half by 2020 from the 1990 levels, without resorting to carbon markets or carbon offsets. It rejects the UN plan called ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation’ (REDD). The conference felt that the scheme allows companies to expand emissions by planting trees in places such as the Amazon.

It called for creating an international court to penalise countries and companies for not taking or for inadequate actions to reduce emissions.

The agreement supports Copenhagen’s Adaptation Fund to help countries cope with climate impact. But that finance should not be seen as climate aid but reparations for global warming created in rich countries. Bolivia, for example, is facing a serious water shortage as Andean glaciers melt away.

New climate financing was set at 6 per cent of the gross domestic product of developed countries a year. The conference also rejected free trade agreements, wanted the developed countries to welcome climate refugees and opposed privatising climate science knowledge.

Bolivia was among five left-leaning nations of Latin America, and Sudan and Saudi Arabia that spurned the Copenhagen Accord. Powerful countries stitched the accord together in the final hours to avert a collapse after two years of talks and wanted other nations to endorse it. Bolivia and other countries termed it undemocratic, leading to Cochabamba.

The Copenhagen Accord provides for US$100 billion in finance a year to help out poor countries and make pledges to reduce emissions, and supports measures like friendly forests.

The Bolivian recommendations are far more demanding, though the meeting would have no legal bearing on the UN process. The summit’s goal of limiting temperature increase to 1 degree Centigrade is more stringent than the accepted wisdom of limiting warming to 2 degrees Centigrade.

And their call for a 50 per cent cut in emission compares with the effective targets of 7 to 16 per cent now being offered by rich countries by 2020.

Bolivia plans to hold a referendum among two billion people by the next Earth Day. The country will plant 10 million trees, as many as its population by then. And it has also set up a Mother Earth Ministry.

Mr Morales and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela will take their battle to Cancun next. They want the United Nations meeting to weigh these recommendations along with the Copenhagen Accord. Further, the ideas will be pressed at Rio de Janeiro, where the UN has decided to hold Rio+20 Earth Summit in 2012.

The idea of empowering poor nations and grass-root activists to prevail on the rich nations to move faster is lofty. It is again the theme of the Climate of Change documentary, a follow-up film to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. It shows people are working to reduce their carbon footprints the world over.

But if such activism deepens conflict over global warming, the collective climate battle will be lost. Already a vicious controversy over the role of humans in global warming has roiled the debate. America’s own climate bill has suffered a serious setback as well as Australia’s carbon trading programme.

In fact, prospects for a formal treaty this year are fast slipping. In the last month, the most polluting nations grouped in the Major Economies Forum met in Washington on climate change but the US played down expectations of an agreement in December.

While holding out for the Kyoto Protocol principles, BRIC nations are also pushing for the formal treaty in South Africa in 2011. Just this week, Germany and Mexico, anxious to get a deal done this year, organised a meeting of 40 nations in Germany to rebuild trust but failed to make progress on some of the complex issues.

Sadly, nature cares nothing for meetings and controversies as severe weather conditions in the past few years have shown. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has reported that we have just experienced the hottest 12 months in 100 years.

Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research warns that warming could rise as much as 20 per cent by 2020 and current pledges by rich nations are woefully inadequate to fight the warming trend. And it forecasts that global warming will shoot past 3 degrees Centigrade this century.

The Bolivian conference goals, including the 1 degree Centigrade warming limit, is hugely ambitious. More humble plans have not been able to muster the required political will yet. So, how much more can we hope from an ideological approach to the big threat?

The writer is with BT’s foreign desk.