Climate change

Three years to find Kyoto alternative

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 December, 2011, 12:00am

Deadlock at the UN climate talks in Durban would have put them in the same league as the Doha round of trade liberalisation talks for the failure of drawn-out multilateral efforts to advance international co-operation. Given the worst-case scenarios for global warming, that would have been regrettable. Modest success in mapping a path towards a more effective global treaty on greenhouse emissions is therefore welcome.

The life of the Kyoto Protocol, the only existing global brake on emissions, has been extended beyond next year while nations try to negotiate a new pact by 2015 that would take effect in 2020. The new deal would bind China and India, which are currently exempt, and the US, which is not party to Kyoto. Negotiators also agreed to establish a fund to mitigate the effect of climate change on poor countries, backed by pledges from rich nations of up to US$100 billion a year.

That does not convey the sense of urgency expected by climate scientists and many participants, particularly poor nations who say the conference did not do enough to protect them from the most severe potential effects of climate change. If the losers are poor countries, the winners are more powerful emerging nations like China, India, Brazil and South Africa, which continue to be exempted from emissions targets by virtue of their status as developing nations. Indeed, Chinese negotiators have hailed the outcome as a great achievement. It allows China, which has overtaken the US as the world's top carbon polluter, to pursue economic development for another decade without being bound to cut emissions.

In rejecting an unqualified deal, China and India appear to have won their argument that it would be unfair if their efforts to eradicate poverty were hindered by emissions cuts to address a problem created by rich nations over the decades. But the compromise leaves some grey areas that have the potential to raise some troublesome obstacles along the road to a truly effective global treaty. For example, it highlights the challenge of winning domestic political acceptance of any future agreement on binding emissions cuts, despite the good intentions of governments. Uncertainty also remains about how legally binding the 2020 treaty should be and whether the distinction between developed and developing countries should be maintained.

Despite its shortcomings, the Kyoto Protocol fleshed out the vision of international co-operation to protecting the planet's environment and set the process in motion. But its time has come and gone. Talks on a new deal are an opportunity for nations to start afresh in working together to cut emissions that scientists say are warming the planet and causing the climate to change. For the sake of future generations they should seize it over the next three years.