Climate change

One step closer now to dangerous warming

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 December, 2011, 12:00am

The Durban climate summit has been proclaimed a great success. The chair, South Africa's Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, told the delegates: 'We have concluded this meeting with [a plan] to save one planet for the future of our children and our grandchildren to come. We have made history.' Don't be fooled. It was an almost total failure.

This time, the rapidly developing country that put up the greatest resistance to a binding global deal was India. (In 2009 and 2010, it was China.) The chief Indian delegate, Jayanthi Natarajan, held out against any legally enforceable treaty through three long days of non-stop negotiations. In the end, she agreed that an eventual deal would have 'legal force' - but it would not be 'legally binding'.

Given what the Indian government already knows, how could it possibly have taken that position? Three years ago, while I was interviewing the director of a think tank in New Delhi, she said her institute had been asked to figure out how much food production India would lose when the average global temperature was 2 degrees Celsius higher - and the answer was 25per cent.

A 25per cent loss of food production would be an almost measureless calamity for India. It now produces just enough food to feed its 1.1 billion people. If the population rises by the forecast quarter of a billion in the next 20 years, and meanwhile its food production falls by 25 per cent due to global warming, half a billion Indians would starve.

Like other countries, India has signed a declaration that the warming must not exceed two degrees, but in practice the government acts as though it had all the time in the world.

Over the past 15 years of climate negotiations, there has been a steady decline in the seriousness of the response. The Kyoto Protocol in 1997 committed the developed countries to cut their emissions by an average of 5per cent by 2012. Developing countries were exempt from any controls, and deeper emission cuts would come in a second phase of Kyoto, beginning in 2012.

Today, developing country emissions have grown so fast that China now produces much more greenhouse gas than the US. Global emissions are not in decline, as they should be.

So what was the response at Durban? The 1997 Kyoto targets for the developed countries will be maintained for another five years, with no further cuts and no legal limits for developing countries. Then everyone will sign a deal (still to be negotiated) by 2015 - and the new targets, whatever they are, will acquire 'legal force', whatever that means, by 2020.

By that time, the two-degree barrier will probably be visible only in the rear-view mirror.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist