The Arctic ice cap may be undergoing its incremental summer shrinkage, but this is not a good time to hold a global climate-change summit. World leaders' attention is focused on economic uncertainty created by the euro-zone debt crisis, not to mention the distractions of a US presidential election campaign and turmoil in the Middle East. Expectations of the just-concluded Rio+20 summit on sustainable development goals, or the promotion of green economic measures to eradicate poverty, were therefore not high. Indeed some leaders stayed away, most notably US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
So it was not surprising that a lack of consensus between rich and poor nations on their climate-change responsibilities was reflected in a declaration which even some signatory nations criticised for lack of commitment and measurable targets. It is only the latest of a series of climate summits that have disappointed hopes. Many now believe progress in the greening of economies must be made locally with the private sector. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said governments alone could not solve problems from climate change to poverty. The declaration was not entirely meaningless, however. For example, it encourages countries to weigh depletion of 'natural capital' like minerals, forests, fisheries and water resources against GDP as a measure of progress. Around 60 countries and 90 private companies have signed up for natural capital accounting.
Meanwhile, the main game remains negotiations on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, the only global brake on emissions, which would bind China and India, currently exempt as developing nations, and the US, which is not party to Kyoto. They, too, lack a sense of urgency. Negotiators have until 2015 to reach agreement on a new pact to take effect from 2020. By then the ecological consequences of depletion of the polar ice cap may have sparked a far greater sense of urgency.