Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Failure of Kyoto: why Cancun will not save us

World leaders are hailing the agreement at Cancun as a qualified success. With the exception of Bolivia, delegates have signed up to a new commitment to reach agreement on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions within the next two years. Alongside this, they undertook to provide $100 billion in aid by 2020 and support measures to protect tropical forests and new ways to share new clean energy technologies - a restatement of an earlier, unfulfilled pledge.

Cancun is seen as a halfway house to a reviewed/renewed Kyoto Protocol, and the agreement essentially is little more than a commitment to do something unspecified by 2012, when the current, largely unimplemented treaty is due to expire. Any hard decisions have been delayed to the next round of talks in Bonn - the reason for Bolivia's resistance to the half-hearted agreement.

The Kyoto Protocol was drawn up in 1997 and sought pledges from the international community to cut greenhouse gases -carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, and two groups of gases, hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons- by 5.2% against their 1990 levels by 2012. But many of the worst polluters - the USA, China and Australia in particular, either dragged their feet over ratification or refused to sign completely. While some countries did make some progress - the UK under the last Labour Government did take some bold if rather incomplete steps - this was in some cases a result of reduced energy use because of economic recession rather than developing new, sustainable alternative sources such as solar or wind power. In other cases, the Protocol's controversial permitting of carbon trading as a means of reducing emissions on paper (mainly by rich countries purchasing quotas from poor countries that were never going to use their quotas in any case) allowed some to claim reductions when in fact the opposite had happened.
Business as usual on Planet Earth
In many parts of the world, "business as usual" means that industrialisation has continued apace, with voodoo solutions such as biofuels, carbon capture and seeding the seas with various minerals touted as miraculous answers to the emerging climate crisis. The consequence has been that, as of the end of 2009, rather than effecting a 5.2% reduction in gases, the world's output had increased by 41% since 1991.

Of course, with the world in recession following the banking crisis, cynics and fair weather environmentalists contend that climate action will need to wait. It is written off as a luxury we cannot afford. In the UK, the right wing point to the recent cold weather as apparent proof that global warming is a sham, invented by a conspiracy of scientists to gain government grants for their work.

But 2010 has been the warmest year on record. More and more evidence shows we are close to a tipping point such as one where warming melts the Siberian tundra to an extent that massive quantities of methane are released into the atmosphere, exponentially increasing the rate by which the planet heats up and in turn triggering more and more feedback points where increases in gases in the air lead to more and more rapid warming. Even conservative estimates accept that it is now impossible to contain global warming to 2C in the next century and far higher increases are likely.

A 5C increase is a distinct possibility in the decades ahead. Nice enough if you have that for a few weeks in the summer in the UK, but apply it worldwide on a permanent basis all year round and global catastrophe results - massive crop failures will induce mass starvation across the planet; hundreds of millions, even billions of climate refugees will result; social conflict and resource wars will burgeon; whole states will fail and some, like the Maldives, will disappear under the rising sea levels. Water scarcities will plague many places, while others will face severe flooding. Humanity's ability to survive at any civilised level will be seriously tested. And this will not be in two or three centuries time - rather much of the disruption will begin in the next few years, and many alive now will likely face the worst consequences of our collective failure to act in time.

So tackling global warming is no luxury, able to be set aside for a few years while the bankers replenish their coffers. We face the greatest threat in history not to the planet - we are arrogant to use phrases like save the planet; Earth does not need us and will long outlive our kind. The real threat is to our own species, the human race, and the time for action is now.

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