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

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

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
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