Durban deal falls short

Mon, Dec 12, 2011, 00:00

THE OUTCOME of the UN climate change conference in Durban shows how difficult it is going to be to reach any meaningful agreement on tackling by far the most challenging problem that the world faces in the years and decades ahead – global warming. Despite clear warnings from scientists that carbon emissions must peak soon if we are to have any chance of limiting the increase in average surface temperatures at 2 degrees Celsius, delegates went into overtime at the weekend to continue bickering, line by line, over the 200 pages of negotiating texts even after talking for two whole weeks.

In particular, the US only went along reluctantly with the EU’s demand – supported by vulnerable small island states and most developing countries, including the poorest – that Durban needed to produce a mandate to launch negotiations with a view to concluding an “agreed outcome with legal force” by 2015 so that it could enter into force in 2020. This fell short of what the EU sought: a comprehensive, legally-binding agreement. For that, its beleaguered president, Barack Obama, must shoulder some of the blame. Far from giving leadership on climate change, as he promised on taking office in 2009, he is now bringing up the rear, largely because of an all-consuming fear that he would be savaged by the Republican opposition if he agreed to anything that would really go beyond the voluntary pledges already made under the Copenhagen Accord.

China and India, the other principal obstacles to a more credible deal in Durban, also have cases to answer. Instead of embracing the EU’s “roadmap”, thereby isolating the US, they resisted it – India, in particular. Both countries, now major economies in the G20 club, still want to be regarded as developing nations, as indeed they are, with vast numbers of people still living in abject poverty, especially in India. But bearing in mind the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, enshrined in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, China and India finally agreed to tag along with a process that had been endorsed most of their colleagues in the G77 group of developing countries, and leave the details of who does what to be sorted out over the next three years.

Whether countries can manage to overcome their deep divisions on this issue between now and 2015 is in the lap of the gods. But the world is running out of time, as recent reports by the UN Environment Programme, the International Energy Agency and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have made abundantly clear. In summary, a massive “gigatonne gap” needs to be rapidly closed between what’s already on the table in terms of voluntary pledges and what the scientists say is needed if we are to have any chance of achieving the agreed target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. What we may be witnessing amidst all the bickering in Durban is the slow and painful transition to a sustainable low-carbon economy that developed and developing countries alike need to make much more speedily if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.