Durban Conference:

Durban Conference: The forgotten planet

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

As the economic crisis bites, the world's politicians are less concerned about the summit aiming to halt climate change

A A A

The world's ministers and their mandarins gather in their thousands this weekend to hammer out a plan for the small matter of saving the planet. Yet few of us appear to have noticed.

Despite apocalyptic warnings about temperatures reaching record levels and carbon emissions rising faster than ever, the delegates at the vast UN climate conference in South Africa this weekend could not be further from reaching a deal – or further from the thoughts of a global population gripped by economic fears.

More than 10,000 ministers, officials, campaigners and scientists from 194 countries are meeting in Durban in an attempt to counter the devastating effects of global warming. With little hope of a major agreement, many are happy to be out of the spotlight.

Not long ago, politicians were proclaiming that climate change was the greatest threat facing the world. David Cameron drove a pack of huskies across a glacier, proclaiming that the Conservatives had to lead a "new green revolution and recapture climate change from the pessimists". Today, amid the preoccupations of a global recession, the future of the world itself seems a secondary concern for the political classes.

The key villain remains the United States, which a year before presidential elections will not sign up to a new green target. China will not play ball either. Japan, Russia and Canada have pulled out of the current negotiations.

Britain has witnessed the dramatic slide of environmentalism down the political agenda. Last night, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, accused Mr Cameron of being "desperately out of touch with anyone who cares about our environment". Liberal Democrats claimed their coalition partners no longer saw electoral advantage in their "vote blue, go green" message. Even the Prime Minister's own "green guru", Steve Hilton, confesses he has doubts about the climate-change argument.

However, the issue will be placed centre stage this week when Sir David Attenborough's highly acclaimed BBC series Frozen Planet concludes with a personal testimony from the much-loved natural history broadcaster about how polar bears and other species still remain on the front-line of the environmental threat.

George Osborne, the Chancellor, signalled a major shift in Tory positioning last week when he suggested cutting carbon emissions would threaten jobs: "We are not going to save the planet by shutting down our steel mills, aluminium smelters and paper manufacturers." His anti-green rhetoric sparked a rift in a coalition that had pledged to be "the greenest government ever".

The Liberal Democrat president, Tim Farron, accused Mr Osborne of adopting climate-sceptic language "to placate 50 or 60 climate deniers on the [Tory] back benches, people who read the Daily Mail and people called Jeremy Clarkson".

Mr Farron suggested Mr Osborne's "disconcerting" anti-green rhetoric was tailored to appeal to restless right-wing Tories. He also warned that, if climate change is not tackled, it could lead to mass-migration, loss of farmland, a run on the food markets and mass starvation. He said: "What's coming even sooner is the increasing price of fossil fuels, increasing cost to the economy, to business, and every other citizen, and an increasing reliance for those fossil fuels on countries that we probably can't rely on."

Meanwhile, Labour accused Mr Cameron of abandoning his environmental credentials. Mr Miliband, who was climate change secretary in the Labour government, dismissed the Prime Minister's environmental policy as "nothing more than a temporary rebranding exercise" – but warned that the international community's approach to the issue was a greater concern. The Labour leader told The Independent on Sunday last night: "The progress we made at [the 2009 UN conference in] Copenhagen towards tackling climate change together is now in danger of stalling because too many governments are retreating behind short-term and short-sighted excuses. I fear the consequence of this will be a worse future for the generations that come after us."

Durban, the 17th annual Conference of the Parties (COP17) to be held since the United Nations' first co-ordinated attempt to grasp the nettle and bring down global temperatures, represents the best hope for rescue.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol bound developed countries to overall cuts of about 5 per cent in global emissions by 2012, compared with 1990 levels. President George W Bush rejected Kyoto in 2001, saying it did not impose emissions limits on emerging industrialised nations – chiefly China and India.

The targets expire at the end of next year; COP17 is the last chance for the world to renew commitments it agreed 14 years ago.

The failure to get a binding international agreement in Durban is underlined by continuing steep rises in annual global CO2 emissions – up 6 per cent, to 33.51bn tons, in 2010. Levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst-case scenario outlined by climate experts just four years ago. Securing a commitment from major polluters such as China and India to sign up to a Kyoto II in the future – a move spearheaded by the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, and his EU colleagues – may be the best chance of salvaging any progress from Durban.

UK ministers will seek to demonstrate their commitment to the green cause with a series of announcements this week. Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, will today pledge £10m to reduce deforestation in Brazil by helping farmers restore vegetation on illegally cleared land, and preventing forest fires.

Mr Huhne will pledge "very significant" funding, likely to run to hundreds of millions of pounds, to help African communities adapt to climate change and use renewable energy.

But as he prepares to travel to South Africa today the green credentials of Mr Huhne's own government are being questioned at home. The IoS revealed last month that the Prime Minister's decision to cut funding for household solar energy had sparked a revolt of business leaders, councils, environment campaigners and unions. His aide Steve Hilton, who suggested the husky trip, has told officials he is "not sure" he believes the climate-change theory. Mr Hilton has become a big fan of the former chancellor Nigel Lawson, one of the most persuasive and vocal critics of the global warming lobby. The two have discussed the issue.

Environmentalists fear there is now a lack of political momentum behind the green agenda, with the economic crisis being used to railroad through a reduction in habitat protection. Stephanie Hilborne, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, asked: "Does this government want to go down in history as the one that kick-started nature's recovery or as the government that tore down the long fought for protection for England's richest wildlife sites?"

View from Britain: 'Sea-level rises could threaten central London. The stakes are very high'

Sir David Attenborough

Broadcaster and naturalist (The last episode of Frozen Planet, On Thin Ice, will be shown on BBC 1 on Wednesday at 9pm)

"It's not beyond possibility that warming will actually cause sea-level rises which could threaten the centre of London. The stakes are very high. We know these changes are happening – the evidence is incontrovertible – and if they go on, they will have catastrophic effects on the human race."

Jenny Jones

London Mayoral Green Party candidate

"The Government has no understanding of the green agenda – even Thatcher recognised climate change. Tories should be ashamed."

Tim Yeo

MP and chair of the Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee

"We must focus on the long-term economic advantages of moving to a low-carbon economy."

Sir John Houghton

Former head of the Met Office and former co-chair of the IPPC

"Attacking climate change is one way of helping to get us out of a recession."

Caroline Spelman

Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

"We won't tackle climate change without dealing with deforestation. The £10m funding I'm announcing will help."

Tony Juniper

Environmental campaigner and writer

"It's appalling that politicians have sidelined environmental goals as they think they are less important in the midst of an economic crisis."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links