An Analysis on Climate Talks: 18 Years, too Little Action?

By | December 14, 2010

“I was born in 1992. You have been negotiating all my life. You cannot tell us that you need more time,” Christina Ora of the Solomon Islands complained to delegates at U.N. talks on fixing global warming.

Her line from a brief, riveting speech to a 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen was emblazoned on activists’ T-shirts at the latest U.N. talks in Mexico, expressing exasperation at small steps meant to slow floods, droughts, heat waves and rising sea levels.

The two-week 190-nation conference in Cancun, a Caribbean resort, agreed Saturday to step up action against climate change, including a goal of $100 billion a year to help the poor from 2020 and action to protect carbon-absorbing rain forests.

Almost all admit it fell woefully short of action needed. Cancun underscored that a treaty, as urged by Ora, is out of reach because of disparate economic interests among China, the United States, OPEC oil exporters and Pacific islands.

“Signs that climate change is happening and with catastrophic consequences are there — flooding in Pakistan, heat waves in Russia, China,” Norwegian Environment Minister Erik Solheim said.

“This is a huge step forward but of course not sufficient based on science,” he said of the Cancun agreements that at least restore some faith in the United Nations after Copenhagen fell short of the widespread goal of reaching a treaty.

The U.N. panel of climate scientists in 2007 said greenhouse gas emissions would have to peak by 2015 to give a chance of limiting a rise in average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) above pre-industrial times — a ceiling agreed to in Cancun.

But based on current projections, that will not happen. Existing government policies for combating global warming will lead to a rise in world temperatures of about 3.6 C (6.5 F) above pre-industrial times, according to Niklas Hoehne, director of energy and climate policy at consultancy Ecofys.

Surging economic growth in emerging nations led by China and India are helping to ease poverty but are driving up world emissions even as rich nations’ economies flounder.

Such changes do not sound like much, but the difference between an Ice Age and now is only about 5 degrees C (9 F).

A new treaty has eluded the world since a U.N. Climate Convention was agreed to in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The convention’s 1997 Kyoto Protocol only binds about 40 rich nations to curb emissions during an initial period ending in 2012.

Outside the conference hall, youth delegates wearing blue T-shirts with Ora’s quote waved banners saying, “1.5 to stay alive.” They say a temperature rise ceiling of 1.5 C (2.7 F) is needed to avoid the worst impacts.

Even to some delegates, especially from vulnerable African nations and low-lying islands at risk of sea level rise, the talks seem like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

“This is a matter of our survival,” said Colin Beck, who like Ora is from the Solomon Islands and a vice-chair of the Alliance of Small Island States.

Average world temperatures have already risen about 0.8 degree C (1.4 F) since the Industrial Revolution and 2010 is set to be among the top three years on record, vying with 1998 and 2005, since records began in the 19th century.

Despite the gloom, others say a response is happening away from the glacial U.N. talks, with investment shifts from coal, gas and oil toward renewable energies. China is investing heavily in projects ranging from solar power to high-speed rail links.

“We’ve been trying to emphasize that the focus shouldn’t solely be on the struggles with the treaty negotiations — this word and that word — because there are things you can do now,” World Bank President Robert Zoellick said.

“Business is not sitting back and waiting for this process to come to a result. “The world is moving ahead anyway,” said Yvo de Boer, climate adviser at audit, tax and advisory group KPMG and a former U.N. climate chief.

He listed concerns over climate, energy prices, energy security, materials scarcity, consumer preferences and a realization that things had to change with the world population set to reach 9 billion by 2050 from 6.8 billion now.

The U.N. panel of climate scientists says it is at least 90 percent likely that human activities are the main cause of most of the global warming in the past half-century. Natural causes cannot be completely ruled out.

Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the panel, warned delegates in Cancun that one underestimated effect of climate change was that water expands as it warms, raising the oceans at the same time as more flows in from melting glaciers.

The world is destined to experience a rise in sea levels of 0.4 to 1.4 meters (1-4 feet) simply because heat in the atmosphere will gradually reach ever greater ocean depths.

(Editing by Peter Cooney and Eric Walsh)

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