Durban Conference: The forgotten planet

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

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."