Durban climate change conference fails to grasp the nettle

In the last issue of the DGS we chose as our video feature, the Canadian tar sands industry that has seen massive growth in recent years. Apart from the destruction of the surface environment, the deforestation and pollution of the water table that coincides with this extreme open cast mining, the ultimate product is heavy petroleum oil, which means that it has a very high proportion of carbon and produces much more C02 than other combustion fuels. Thus lo and behold should we really be surprised when the first defection from the accord reached in Durban on 11 December should be the Canadians, two days later and with the ink still not dry.

So what of the Durban conference on climate change?

According to Fred Pearce writing for the New Scientist, “ Not a single tonne of carbon was saved. In the short term, the planet will benefit not one jot. Some are calling it a betrayal of both science and the world’s poor”

The one ray of hope is that it forced major developing nations like China, Brazil and South Africa to accept the principle of future binding targets on their greenhouse gas emissions for the first time. After three overnight negotiating sessions and a 36-hour conference overrun, Liberal Democrat climate tsar Chris Huhne said:  “This is the first time we have seen major economies commit to take action demanded by the science”. Whoopee then what was Kyoto all about and is progress at a snail’s pace nevertheless progress?

The conference agreed that by 2015 governments would finalise a “protocol, legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” that would impose targets on all major emitters, rich and poor. It will probably enter into force by 2020, when existing voluntary targets end, though that is not part of the official deal. So the serious attention to the problem will start in 2020 then!

The bad news is that the deal is a post-dated cheque. It won’t do anything to help the climate in the next decade – a decade that scientists say is critical to arresting global warming and turning the world’s energy infrastructure towards low-carbon sources. Every year, countries spend about a trillion dollars on energy infrastructure, and right now coal is still the fuel of choice.

It is also far from clear what the promised binding targets will be – that question was not discussed. Most accept that the poorest nations will not face absolute cuts to their emissions. Instead, they will cut their “carbon intensity”: the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of GDP. But China may be asked to do more. It held out longest against mentioning legal provisions in the Durban text. By 2020 it will be responsible for a quarter of the world’s emissions and will probably have per-capita emissions as high as Europe.

With the legal targets not due to kick in till 2020 at the earliest, a key question is what will happen during the next decade. Voluntary action is now the only thing limiting emissions in most countries. And while the European Union agreed to accept a second phase of the Kyoto protocol that will limit its own emissions between now and 2020, few other industrialised nations will join in.

Canada pulling out this week, joining other renegades: Russia, Japan and the US. After next year, the protocol will cover only around 15 per cent of global emissions. That means voluntary targets will, in theory at least, have a big effect on global emissions in the coming years. In the last two rounds of annual climate talks, in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Cancun, Mexico, more than 80 countries – including major emitters not bound by the Kyoto protocol like Brazil, China, Indonesia and the US – pledged voluntary targets. Mostly, these pledges are not to cut emissions but carbon intensity.

In Durban, US chief negotiator Todd Stern said such promises were much more meaningful than the Kyoto protocol. But there are doubts. Independent modellers at Climate Analytics in Potsdam, Germany, say the pledges are wide open to governments cooking the books. Their analysis of the suggests global carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 could soar above the widely quoted 55 billion tonnes. That is far in excess of the 44 billion tonnes that the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) says is needed for a cost-effective route to staying below 2 °C of global warming.

Time is running out. However successful the deal felt early on Sunday, the brutal truth for climate negotiators is this: since 2007, when a “road map” to halt warming at 2 °C was agreed in Bali, Indonesia, they have spent four years on talks that have come to nothing. The plan for a deal to come into force when the Kyoto protocol expires in December 2012 sank without trace. The Durban agreement is essentially a pact to start again, with some added text about the legal nature of the future deal.

In the final hours, European negotiators in Durban tried to address the small matter of what happens in the next decade – the so-called “ambition gap”. A working group made up of a small number of nations will now investigate ways to persuade countries to boost their voluntary pledges before 2020. It may also look for new ways of curbing emissions not currently covered by any targets, legal or otherwise – everything from international air travel and shipping, to the soot from a billion African cooking stoves. If they can muster enough political will, all is not lost. There are ways to close the ambition gap but nations must act now.

With the eyes of the world’s media focussed on the seemingly intractable world economic crisis, the conference in Durban seemed to receive little attention. However failure to act now is storing up huge trouble for the next generation, our children and grandchildren. The effects of climate change are already killing and making destitute, people in huge numbers. Both the seemingly intractable problems of the world economic system and the threat posed by climate change have a single solution. We need sustainable development and that requires planning on a global scale which addresses the needs of humanity, not the profits of a minority.

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