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: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture