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The whole world in their hands

Michael McCarthy surveys the obstacles faced by climate negotiators

Monday 21 September 2009 00:00 BST

Welcome once again to the Climate Clinic. This is the fourth year that Britain's environmentalists have come together with green-minded companies and other bodies to hold our mini-conference within all three party conferences, with The Independent as media partner – and there can be no doubt that 2009 is the most crucial year of them all. For the Copenhagen Climate Conference – which takes place in a little over two months' time – is likely to represent a turning point in the history of the world.

It is more than 20 years since the threat of global warming emerged, yet in that time the problem has got significantly worse and the threat has only increased. For on the one hand, despite the millions of words expounded on the subject, and dozens of conferences, the world community has failed almost completely to cut back on the carbon emissions that are causing the atmosphere to warm; and on the other, those emissions have increased at a rate no one believed possible even at the Millennium, largely because of the rapid industrialisation of the developing countries. China, for example, with its exploding economy, doubled its emissions in a decade from 3bn to 6bn tonnes annually, thus overtaking the United States as the world's largest polluter.

That's in absolute rather than per capita terms, of course. If we look at emissions per head, the US is still a far worse offender than China, and it's important to acknowledge that. But ultimately, it is absolute emissions which count – what matters is the amount of CO2 which the atmosphere is actually having to absorb, and in the years to come developing nations are going to provide the vast majority of this, perhaps as much as 80 per cent.

Yet we in the rich world have spent 200 years putting carbon into the atmosphere, ever since coal began to power the industrial revolution. We've done virtually nothing to halt it; and from a developing nation's point of view, we caused the problem, and we should take the lion's share of solving it.

It doesn't sound much like a basis for agreement, does it? If some sort of accord can be reached in the Danish capital, it will represent a triumph of the negotiator's art. Firstly, we need the developed countries to promise big emissions cuts, especially in the near-term; by 2020, 30 per cent at least. This in itself is a Big Ask, as Friends of the Earth would say. Secondly, we need the developing nations to scale back their emissions growth, while allowing it to continue to some extent to pull their citizens out of poverty. To get them to do that, we will have to pay for it. That will be billions of dollars annually from us to them; for some, an Even Bigger Ask.

Yet the price of doing nothing will be even higher. The UN's meteorologists have made it clear that the current trajectory of emissions growth is a pathway to disaster, and unless emissions peak very soon and start to decline, the chances of holding the global temperature rise to 2°C above the pre-industrial level – the maximum considered allowable without serious damage to human society and the natural world – will vanish.

Copenhagen gives us this chance. It also gives us the chance to screw things up completely, and let climate change slip entirely out of our control. It is a turning point in history indeed.

Michael McCarthy is Environment Editor of 'The Independent'

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