Hopes rise of breakthrough at crucial climate summit

194 nations talk into the small hours – but pressure on the planet continues to grow.

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The Independent Online

Some sort of binding deal on climate change looked set to emerge from the Durban climate conference amid signs in the early hours of this morning that a new agreement could be reached by the 194 countries meeting in South Africa.

The apparent breakthrough occured after the conference ran into protracted extra time which had, during the unscheduled Saturday sittings, seen some delegates leave. But the late initiative received overt backing from the notoriously recalcitrant United States. Details, however, had yet to emerge of the final text agreed after a 13-day conference that was extended by more than 24 hours.

In closing speeches to the Durban conference, delegates appeared to have agreed on key points including a second commitment to the Kyoto protocol, the establishment in 2015 of a legal agreement with a much broader scope, and a commitment to equity in the imposition of rules governing emission.

At 2.40am South African time, South African foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane called for a 10-minute "huddle" in which differences could be settled over a compromise phrase to cover the extent to which the agreement would be legally binding. Earlier in the night, the EU had led a range of delegates, including India, in impassioned speeches calling for a legally-binding agreement.

Breakthrough was then far from certain with sticking points that included an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, the only global pact enforcing carbon cuts. Talks seemed then to have boiled down to a tussle between the US, which wants all polluters to be held to the same legal standard on emissions cuts, and China and India which want to ensure their fast-growing economies are not shackled.

But while Durban talked, and some delegates even left for more pressing engagements, the Earth moved on. Unfortunately, it was not in a good direction. In the past few days, Brazil's senate has voted to loosen controls considerably on deforestation; new studies have found that glaciers in three continents have been shrinking faster than previously thought; Holland has announced plans to ease protection for wildlife; and yesterday 10 of the world's leading conservation bodies issued fresh warnings about the accelerating degradation of the oceans and land habitats and about species loss.

Among the new alarms raised are: demand for soy, palm oil and biofuels is threatening forests in Brazil, Borneo, Indonesia and across Africa; the area of the planet covered by trees falling by 300 million hectares since 1990; oceans plundered by a fisheries industry subsidised to the tune of $27bn every year; a glacier in Chile shrinking by more than half a mile in 11 months; increased levels of carbon dioxide causing widespread acidification of the seas; an entire genus of mammal heading towards extinction for the first time in 75 years; oil exploration off Russia helping reduce the population of western grey whales down to 26 breeding females; and, among the plants endangered, Taxus contorta, a species of Himalayan yew used in the production of drugs for chemotherapy.

Many of the conservation bodies told The Independent on Sunday that these and other ongoing environmental calamities – some either contributors to, or sufferers from, climate change – are as serious as the failure to address global warming effectively. Bob Keefe, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defence Council, said: "Climate change is taking a toll on our planet – but so are we, in myriad ways. From digging up ancient boreal forests in Canada's tar sands to spilling oil in the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico to the constant introduction of chemicals into our lands and into our everyday lives, we're finding new ways to hurt our environment every day."

The veteran conservationist Tony Juniper said: "One consequence of the recent focus on carbon is that many see climate change as the only environmental challenge – but it is one of many. These include the loss of biological diversity, degradation of ecosystems, ocean acidification and the depletion of natural resources."

The same sense of clarity was not apparent in Durban. On Saturday afternoon, there were informal plenaries at which delegates expressed their grievances. But by then some participants had gone. Tosi Mpanu Mpanu said nine-tenths of African negotiators had left and questioned the legitimacy of any agreement reached after so many departures.

The European "roadmap" aims to keep the Kyoto Protocol alive beyond its deadline at the end of next year. But Kyoto's carbon constraints apply only to rich economies that have ratified it and do not reflect the emissions reality of China and India. In exchange for keeping Kyoto alive, nations at Durban would mandate talks for a new pact, due to be concluded in 2015, that would draw all major emitters into a single, legally binding framework.

But as they talked, the despoiling of the planet went about its usual damaging business, not least by deforestation. Marie Reynolds of Friends of the Earth said: "Soy farming and biofuel farming are two areas we have identified as key drivers of environmental destruction in the world right now. Massive swathes of forest are cut down in South America and South-east Asia to make way for plantations for these industries – but lots of people in the UK still don't realise it's our lifestyles and high biofuel targets that are causing the problem." It now requires more than a million hectares of land to supply the UK's demand for soy.

Efforts to limit, or slow, the clearing of trees were dealt a blow last Tuesday when the Brazilian senate voted to loosen restrictions on deforestation in the Amazon and give amnesty to those who illegally cleared land before July 2008. President Dilma Rousseff pledged during her campaign for the presidency last year to veto any portion of an environmental bill that provides amnesty for those who illegally cleared land in the past. But she now faces a tough battle dealing with a strong agriculture lobby.

About 20 per cent of the Brazilian rainforest already has been cut down, and Paulo Adario, Amazon campaign director at Greenpeace Brazil, described the proposed law as "a disaster for the Amazon and all Brazilian forests". David Norman, director of campaigns at WWF-UK, said: "Deforestation rates continue to alarm, and the changes to legislation in Brazil passed last week will make matters worse. Irresponsible land use for commodities such as soy and palm oil is threatening hugely important areas such as the Cerrado in Brazil, the forests of Borneo and central Africa." Friends of the Earth claims that if current trends continue, cattle ranchers and soy farmers alone will destroy 40 per cent of Amazon rainforest by 2050.

Tropical deforestation is the second biggest cause of climate change, and its most palpable symptom is retreating glaciers. In the past few days, a study of 600 French Alpine glaciers has shown they have lost 25 per cent of their area since the 1970s; a further report, by the Center of Scientific Studies in Valdivia, Chile, has charted the shrinking by a kilometre of a glacier in Patagonia.

Arctic sea ice volumes were 8 per cent less than the previous lowest year (2010), but rising sea levels are not the only concern. Stewart Maginnis, head of the IUCN Forest Conservation Programme, said: "Ocean acidification is a direct consequence of increased emissions from fossil fuels, and that's having a serious impact on marine life and coral reef systems."

The effect of warming and exploitation on wildlife was underlined by a report that the population of the hirola, an African antelope which is the last representative of its genus, has fallen by 90 per cent in 30 years. There are now an estimated 400 left, thanks to hunting, habitat destruction and warming-related drought. Their only hope now is not government action, but a sanctuary run by local East African clans.

Even protected sites and the species that live on them can fall foul of our demands, industry and governments with dollar signs in their eyes. The Virunga National Park in Africa's Great Rift Valley is a Unesco World Heritage Site, but the Democratic Republic of Congo has breached its own laws and UN rules to grant permission to a group of oil companies to conduct exploratory surveys, including within the park. WWF, which is campaigning against any oil extraction, says Virunga has the highest biological diversity of any national park in Africa, and is home to 22 species of primates, including a third of the world's mountain gorilla population.

Nick Nuttall, UN Environment Programme spokesman, referring to deforestation, species extinctions, and overexploitation, said: "Across the globe there are a myriad case studies underlining that these trends can be slowed and reversed. Rio+20 in June next year is the opportunity for world leaders to scale up and accelerate these transitions through adopting smart public policies." The experience of Durban does not suggest optimism.