United Nations

Commitment lacking on global warming

Kevin Rafferty looks at the irony of holding climate talks in an energy-guzzling nation where the government's inaction on global warming is symptomatic of the apathy affecting leaders everywhere

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2012, 2:41am

Is it a savage irony or just a sick joke that the latest talks to try to reach an international agreement to curb the greenhouse gases that threaten our fragile planet have opened in Doha, the capital of Qatar - the worst polluter in the world in per capita emissions?

Delegates from 194 countries plus armies of experts from the United Nations and its agencies have started two weeks of creating a lot more hot air trying to find a successor agreement to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which was stillborn because the US signed it but refused to ratify it.

The hope is that Doha will be a stepping stone to a new climate change treaty, which will be agreed by 2015 but will not come into force until 2020.

Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN climate convention, has already prepared optimistic closing remarks for the Doha meeting. She told The New York Times: "I'm going to say: 'This is another firm step in the right direction, but the path is still a long road ahead.'"

If this is the best case, the world is in big trouble. Time is running out. Time has run out. All the scientific research points in the same direction - that the world is doomed to failure in its efforts to restrict the rise in the earth's temperatures to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The World Meteorological Organisation reported that greenhouse gases have reached a record 394 parts per million, way above the 280ppm of the pre-industrial era, and rising rapidly from the 389ppm levels of 2010.

The uncomfortable fact is that human beings are spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than at any time in the past 55 million years. The World Bank warned this month that the world is on track to be four degrees higher, and some scientists claim scarily that the temperature rise may even reach six degrees.

The consequence is not merely that the earth will become unbearably hot. The rise in sea levels will mean some cities and countries may be swamped out of existence; others will have to live with regular storm surges metres high.

It is not merely writing on the wall. There have already been savage visitations from nature. China, India, Australia and Nigeria have suffered massive floods, while Britain had a drought in the spring and is now facing floods.

The sceptical US has seen its hottest year on record and blistered crops. The final stages of the US election campaign were interrupted by Hurricane Sandy, a superstorm that wreaked damage estimated at US$50 billion or more. Bloomberg Businessweek heralded the storm with a cover picture of floods and a bold headline that yelled: "It's Global Warming, Stupid!"

American politicians, wrapped up in immediate issues, rushed to give succour and aid to victims of Sandy, but failed to mention global warming, climate change or the threat to the earth in their bold promises to make the world right.

Qatar is a perfect host for climate change talks, given that it is a living, breathing testament to the oil- and gas-guzzling modern economy, offering free electricity, traffic jams of SUVs and a profusion of steel and glass high-rise buildings that have tamed the 40-50 degree heat into comfortable, air-conditioned bliss.

In consequence, Qatar is the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases per person, more than twice the US. But the government has no plans to take its own action on climate change.

At the global level, leaders are pussyfooting around. Even if they achieve agreement on a new protocol and implement it immediately, it will be too little and too late, as well as too costly.

Critic Dr Bjorn Lomborg, named as one of the world's top 100 thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine, made an important point in claiming: "An extremely optimistic Doha climate outcome could cost half a trillion dollars a year, with benefits of only three cents on the dollar." More controversially, he asserts that a successful conclusion of the other Doha discussions on trade, unfortunately almost as dead as a dodo, could lift developing countries by "US$3 trillion in 2020 and about US$100 trillion annually by the end of the century".

That is a useful reminder of the failure of political leaders from Beijing and Washington, to Brussels, Doha and Delhi, either to think ahead or to think outside the box.

There is no easy solution to the horror of climate change. One country or group of countries imposing a carbon tax is a false solution if industries then migrate to cheaper countries that do not impose a tax and the carbon emissions increase there.

What is needed is a mixture of heavy investment in clean energy and careful consideration of the possibilities of geo-engineering techniques that might launder carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the air.

Most of all, it is time to take the issue of climate change seriously and put it on top of the global agenda, not for partial solution in 2015 going on for 2020. We are all in this together. As Hong Kong well knows, it cannot shrug off choking pollution from the mainland. But where are the brave thinkers who will prod the politicians to realise that this is a global problem affecting us all - African, American, Asian, European, rich or poor - and needs to be tackled now?

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator