Time running out for stopping climate change

Two developments this week offer hope on global warming, neither of them occurring at the climate conference in Nairobi, from…

Two developments this week offer hope on global warming, neither of them occurring at the climate conference in Nairobi, from where Frank McDonald reports

Mind the gap! This simple warning was repeated endlessly by environmentalists at the UN Climate Change Summit in Nairobi this week, as ministers and diplomats argued behind closed doors about some sort of deal that might begin to grapple seriously with the titantic threat of global warming.

Time is running out. The Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change - the only international instrument we have so far to deal with this critical issue facing humanity - only covers the period 2008-2012 and was designed merely to cut greenhouse gas emissions from 35 developed countries by an average of 5 per cent.

Much deeper cuts will be needed after 2012 if the world is to avoid a dangerous increase in average global surface termperatures. But the 136 countries which have ratified Kyoto - both developed and developing - have yet to agree on what will happen after the current phase expires in six years time.


Hence the "Mind the gap" warning from Friends of the Earth, the Climate Action Network and other environmentalists who have been closely monitoring these annual climate change talks since they began in Berlin in 2005.

Any gap in implementing commitments could be fatal to the process, they say.

Not only would it be a blow to the momentum gained at the last climate change summit in Montreal, it would also hit the emerging carbon trading market quite hard (for without agreed targets to cut emissions, carbon loses its value) as well as stalling efforts to help poorer countries to adapt to climate change.

What the environmentalists wanted from the 12th Conference of the Parties (COP12) in Nairobi was an agreement under which a full review of Kyoto would be concluded by 2008 and that the deliberations of an important ad hoc working group on further commitments for developed countries would finish by 2009.

These deadlines were seen as essential if serious negotiations on deep emissions cuts are to get under way next year, to ensure that there would be no gap between existing and post-2012 commitments. But all the Kyoto countries agreed was that the review would "take place" in 2008 - not that it would be concluded by then.

Saving the world was always going to be a tough task. In 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Japan's old imperial capital, its relatively rapid ratification by the required number of countries was almost taken for granted. Certainly, no one anticipated that this process would drag on until early 2005.

The US decision in March 2001 to spurn Kyoto within two months of president George Bush taking office almost killed it off. Australia sided with the Americans, and for the same reason - economic self-interest. But Canada came on board and Russia's belated decision to ratify finally brought the protocol into legal force.

The long drawn-out ratification process inevitably meant that several COPs came and went without anyone really focusing on what would was going to happen after 2012. And so, instead of negotiating on the shape of a second round over the past few years, those seeking to make more progress are running out of time.

Two things happened this week that offer some hope for the future - neither of them in Nairobi. In Washington DC, three senior Democratic Party senators who will be taking over the chairs of powerful committees in January pledged to "work to pass an effective system of mandatory limits on greenhouse gases".

And in Canberra, Australian prime minister John Howard announced that his government was seriously considering the establishment of a carbon trading market there. This is to be examined by a task force, and one intriguing prospect is that Australia could even plug into the European carbon market.

Even more intriguing is the possibility that individual US states (such as California) which have committed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions might follow suit.

That would be in tune with the new mood of the US voters, over half of whom cited climate change as an important issue in the mid-term elections.

A post-election survey by pollster John Zogby of almost 20,000 voters throughout the US identified the threat as "a sleeper issue that may have snuck up on politicians in close races". The implications are clear. "Looking ahead," Mr Zogby said, "politicians in both parties ignore this issue at their peril."

Arizona senator John McCain, a leading contender for the Republican nomination to succeed Mr Bush, also said this week that he would "absolutely" push for a senate vote on global warming legislation next year. He even predicted that the president would be compelled to act on it before he leaves office in 2009.

It was the US, of course, which pressed for "market-based mechanisms" to be incorporated in the Kyoto Protocol - when Bill Clinton was president and Al Gore, of An Inconvenient Truth film fame, was vice-president. The European Union went along with this at the time, as the price for winning US support.

But Mr Clinton and Mr Gore didn't deliver on Kyoto, in the face of overwhelming bi-partisan opposition from the senate, and Mr Bush was quick to disown it. Last year, however, the senate passed a resolution by 53 votes to 44 in favour of mandatory US limits on greenhouse gases, and legislation is now likely to follow.

The Bush administration's position - indeed the position of every country reluctant to take action on climate change on economic grounds - has been well and truly undermined by the British government's Stern Review, which concluded that it will be much cheaper to deal with now than to fix in years to come.

Obviously, the countries which ratified Kyoto cannot do this on their own. Even if all of them were to disappear tomorrow, and their greenhouse gas emissions with them, the world would still be confronted with the huge risks associated with climate change, and the need to take action to moderate rising temperatures.

China and other major developing countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa will have to join in the Kyoto process sooner or later, with a view to sending what Japanese minister Mutsuyoshi Nishimura called "a global message to the world" that the UN really is "moving to achieve stabilisation of the climate".