Cynical governments, worried world

The planet is getting warmer, the weather is getting weirder and all the time our emissions keep on rising. But as negotiators gather in Durban, it’s clear no one plans to do much about it, writes Joydeep Gupta.

Rarely has a major international conference started amid such cynicism as this year’s United Nations climate summit, which opens this Monday in the South African port city of Durban. The infant steps taken in Cancún last year to bring global climate negotiations back on track after the 2009 fiasco at Copenhagen are in serious danger of halting.

The reason is simple. Tackling global warming requires control over carbon emissions. Developing countries, led by China and India, are clear that this must primarily be done by rich countries, responsible for almost all the extra carbon in the atmosphere since the dawn of the industrial age. Rich countries are equally convinced that unilateral action will not solve anything, given the speed at which emerging economies are increasing their carbon emissions. China is already the world’s largest emitter and India is fourth, though each has a per capita emission just a fraction of that of the United States, the world’s second largest bulk emitter.

Negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), going on for 17 years and counting, have had one notable achievement: the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, under which rich countries are legally obliged to reduce their carbon emissions from 1990 levels. The protocol’s first commitment period ends in December 2012 and, since the Copenhagen summit, the advanced nations have refused to commit themselves to a second period.

By all indications, they are set to continue down that path. The United States has never ratified the protocol at all. Japan, which played such a big role in getting the treaty through in the first place, has now refused to get into a second commitment period. “We are asking for a new global comprehensive framework, in which all countries are involved,” said Kenji Hiramatsu, Japan’s director general for global issues.

Since the middle of 2009, large developing countries, led by China and India, have made a serious attempt to break the deadlock by committing to reduce the carbon intensity of their economies, despite the knowledge that they will have to industrialise a lot more to reach anywhere near the quality of life common in developed societies. Largely due to those efforts, the United Nations was enabled to save a bit of face in Copenhagen and to declare the Cancún summit a success. But now developing countries seem to be shifting to the view that there is no point bending over backwards – rich countries still won’t agree to legally binding emission cuts in a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.

So the developing countries are digging in their heels. “The second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol is non-negotiable, and must come before anything else,” India’s environment minister, Jayanthi Natarajan, said recently. With countries like the United States, Japan, Canada and Russia declaring that they will not sign up to doing anything unless large developing countries like China and India take on legally binding emission-reduction commitments, the stage is set for stalemate and mutual recriminations.

It puts this year’s summit host South Africa in an awkward position: no host wants to be associated with a failure. But salvaging climate negotiations now requires a level of statesmanship perhaps unique to Nelson Mandela. Given the UN’s requirement that every agreement must be reached by consensus among 193 countries, UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres must be wishing for 193 Nelson Mandela clones.

And all this foot dragging is happening at a time when evidence of human induced climate change is becoming ever more overwhelming. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has just reported a 29% increase in the warming effect of greenhouse gases on the climate between 1990 and 2010. Carbon dioxide accounts for 80% of these gases – its concentration in the atmosphere has now reached 389 parts per million, up from less than 250 parts per million at the start of the industrial age. Releasing the report, WMO head Michel Jarraud said: “Even if we managed to halt our greenhouse gas emissions today – and this is far from the case – they would continue to linger in the atmosphere for decades to come and so would continue to affect the delicate balance of our living planet and our climate.”

As far back as 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – which involves just about every prominent climate scientist in the world – had said governments should make every effort to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, because the effects of any warming beyond that could be catastrophic. Despite such a dire warning, governments have continued to drag their feet. Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA), was recently quoted as saying, “If we do not have an international agreement whose effect is put in place by 2017, then the door [ to holding temperature rise below two degrees Celsius] will be closed forever.”

The reason is that an average temperature rise does not mean a uniform rise all over the world – that would be relatively easy to handle and would in fact be welcome in many parts of the world. What it means is that extreme events like storms, floods and droughts will increase in frequency as well as severity, as the IPCC pointed out in a report released just last week which predicts more intense heat waves and heavy downpours. And it is happening already: the study – the result of a two-year process involving 100 scientists and policy experts –says there is at least a 66% chance that climate extremes have changed as a result of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Figueres said: “The new IPCC report is a stark reminder of the extent to which rising greenhouse-gas concentrations and the ensuing rise in global average temperatures are already leading to increased incidences of floods and heat waves, and that such incidences will become more frequent and severe if the global rise in greenhouse-gas emissions is left unchecked. The ability of the world to become more climate-resilient will largely depend on the speed with which emissions can be decreased, and the extent to which the poor and vulnerable populations in developing countries are provided with necessary finance and technology to adapt to the inevitable.

“Governments meeting in Durban for the UN climate change conference must therefore finalise the institutional framework agreed last year in Mexico that can help developing countries adapt to the dire effects of climate change and to curb their emissions. And to curb global emissions, all countries must both answer the question of the future of the Kyoto Protocol and map out a pathway towards a broader, more ambitious, binding global climate-change agreement.”

Her comments were echoed by environmental campaigners. Tove Maria Ryding, international climate policy coordinator at Greenpeace, said: “The IPCC report brings home the inescapable fact that climate change is not only fuelling extreme weather, it is causing an escalation in impacts both on humans and economies, most of which are increasingly being borne by the developing world.

“After two decades of international climate negotiations aimed at reducing emissions, we now have more, not less, greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. We no longer need reports or studies to confirm the need for action; our addiction to fossil fuels is leading us blindly towards a cliff edge.”

The overwhelming majority of scientists are now clear that humans are causing climate change, that this is already having serious adverse effects and that the effects are likely to worsen. But despite this, bureaucrats from the Major Economies Forum went away from a US meeting in mid-November without any agreement on what their governments would do to tackle the problem.

In fact, there are reports that some rich countries have given up all hope of having any meaningful global climate treaty before 2020, with the more optimistic ones among them giving a date of 2016.

Reacting to such reports, the Alliance of Small Island States, which includes some of the countries most at risk from sea-level rise caused by global warming, said any delay would be “reckless and irresponsible”. But there is every indication that governments of all countries are collectively planning to keep going down that path. Meanwhile, the IEA reported that in 2010, global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels rose by more than 5% on the previous year.

Joydeep Gupta is project director (south Asia) of chinadialogue’s third pole project.

Homepage image by UNclimatechange shows UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres.