Leading article: We will all pay a price for failure in Durban

 

Share
Related Topics

It would be reassuring to know dilemmas of global proportions can always count on getting a degree of world attention, but as some 200 leaders assemble today for the climate change conference in Durban, most eyes seem averted from the life-and-death issues up for debate. The US public is preoccupied with forthcoming elections and America's relative decline in the world while Europe is gripped by the euro-zone crisis. Fears of economic meltdown trump concerns about melting ice caps – though the former are surely easier to fix than the latter.

But the stakes in Durban are higher than ever as countries wrestle over ways to halt rising temperatures and, specifically, over renewal of the 1997 Kyoto protocol – a sub-treaty of the 1992 UN framework treaty agreed in Rio – which all countries signed but which only impacted on the old industrialised West and Japan.

Kyoto bound what were then the world's major polluters to cut carbon emissions by 2008-12, working on a baseline of emissions in 1990. At the time, there wasn't much argument about which countries would have to do most to cut emissions. The US was then the world's biggest polluter, producing 25 per cent of C02.

The problem is that since 1997 the world economy has been transformed. In the 1990s China was industrialising fast but few grasped the scale of its coming explosion in economic activity. China's role as a polluter has expanded accordingly. From 1996 to 2007 its carbon emissions doubled and in 2007 it took over from the US as the world's largest polluter. China now is responsible for 24 per cent of C02 emissions while the US is "only" responsible for 16 per cent.

This shift leaves the Kyoto provisions looking out of sync with the new economic reality, as Kyoto did not oblige China or India to do anything to cut emissions, while giving Japan, China's neighbour, tough goals to meet. If China, India and some other fast-growing economies recognised Western complaints about this inherent unfairness as valid, matters in Durban might be easier. But beyond the fact that an agreement to renew Kyoto in December 2012 poses no dilemma for them, they see Western adherence to Kyoto as a gesture of good faith. They also argue that while China may be the biggest polluter today, the reason why the earth's atmosphere is so polluted is because the rich, industrialised West made it so over decades.

There may be logic to this but it gets us nowhere nearer an agreement on keeping climate change within tolerable boundaries, and the old industrialised powers are correct to respond that any new agreement that does not include China is worthless.

Does a way out of this logjam exist? It does not look hopeful. Three signatories to Kyoto, Japan, Russia and Canada, have already said they will not renew the protocol, while the US, which withdrew support under George Bush in 2001, remains outside the process.

The position formulated by Britain in 2010, which is now the common European position, seeks to triangulate the process. The idea is that the West agrees to renew Kyoto, pleasing China and its allies, while in parallel a treaty is negotiated involving everyone. This is the big prize, an all-encompassing treaty that recognises current economic reality. Even in the best-case scenario it cannot be agreed this year but Durban would be counted a success if there was at least an agreement in principle.

The other scenario is, of course, no agreement – everyone goes home and the clock carries on ticking. This would be disastrous. If we are to keep the rise in average temperatures within two degrees above the pre-industrial level, the range that scientists consider the maximum tolerable, emissions must peak by 2020, which means reaching a planetary agreement on emissions some time before that, by 2015 at the latest. Time is short.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS1 Teacher Plymouth

£21500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd...

Operations Data Analyst - London - up to £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Operations Data Analyst -...

Programmatic Business Development Manager

£35 - £40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: As the Programmatic Business Develo...

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is currently recruitin...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: out of time, polling and immigration and old words

John Rentoul
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past