Global climate change is a global problem and one that requires global action for a global solution. It was with this in mind that world leaders met in Durban last month to battle it out in a two week climate conference. The event concluded in an all-night showdown, when an agreement was finally made at 5 o’clock in the morning.
The conference was needed to determine countries’ commitments to carbon emissions reductions to replace those laid out by the 1997 Kyoto protocol. Unfortunately, said protocol had a limited impact in reducing global warming, seeing as the USA failed to ratify, Australia managed to wrangle an actual increase in emissions and developing countries escaped scot free without having to make any reductions. This is a moral dilemma which had to be addressed this year, with China and India becoming world leaders in carbon pollution.
The last two years’ conferences have left many scientists and the environmentally aware tearing their hair out over the nature of political debating, which usually results in outcomes that allow governments to carry on with business as usual, while the planet slowly continues to fry.
Last year in Cancun, two weeks of deliberating ended in the issue being “parked,” an easy way of not having to worry about climate change for another 12 months, and an escape from the harsh reality that emissions are showing greater annual increases than ever before, and we are experiencing some of the warmest years on record.
This year’s conference also looked doomed from the outset. China and India were set on renewing Kyoto, which would allow them to continue to emit freely while their economies develop, leaving the developed world to shoulder the burden. It also seemed highly unlikely that Japan, Canada or Russia would agree to any level of cuts to their emissions, all three not wanting to risk any dent to their economies.
It was the EU commissioner for climate change, Connie Hedegaard, and the Indian minister for affairs, Jayanthi Natarajan, who managed to save the day and prevent another Cancun-style disaster. The two made a deal in which India agreed to join the emissions reductions treaty. This was of great importance, as India’s emissions are currently increasing by 9% a year, making them the world’s third highest emitter of greenhouse gases.
The success of the conference was largely accredited to the strategy of the EU, which entered the debate with clear goals for what it wanted to achieve: a new legal treaty to be signed by 2015 to replace Kyoto, which will be implemented by 2020.
However, the glimmer of hope that followed the end of the negotiations was tragically short lived, as Canada decided to pull out one day later. Canada’s environment minister, Peter Kent, criticised the whole notion of the protocol and saw withdrawing as a way of saving Canada from $14bn of debt, forecasting that targets would never be met.
The worldwide problem of climate change requires participation from all countries if there is to be any hope of avoiding dangerous levels of global warming. Once one powerful country refuses to sign, the probability of others following suit increases, as governments cling to short term economic interests. Whether or not other reluctant nations will follow suit and leave the treaty has yet to be seen.
There are still many barriers to implementing the agreement, monitoring emissions and avoiding dangerous climate change. While governments continue to deliberate, NGOs and scientists argue greater cuts are needed and worry that we may be locked into a catastrophic four degree rise in global temperatures. The only thing certainty is that we are already in a frantic race against climate change and more needs to happen, and faster, if we are to have any hope of winning.