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Time for change

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As the world’s governments are meeting in Doha to negotiate the way forward for curbing carbon emissions, the stakes over climate change have never been higher.  

In November, around 17,000 delegates from more than 190 nations touched down in Doha, the capital of Qatar, for the Conference of the Parties – the highest decision-making authority of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The negotiations, which lasted until 7 December, represented the year’s most important meeting on climate change. And as the global situation worsens, there is room to argue that, in the wake of the discussions, imminent action is more important than ever.

The focus of such meetings, which in themselves are only frameworks for negotiation, are the protocols that tie nations to concrete commitments. For this conference, the 18th of its kind since the UNFCCC was established at the ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the chief question related to the ‘Kyoto Protocol’ – an agreement signed in Japan in 1997, which is the first to bring nations under legal obligation to curb emissions. Since 2008, it has – supposedly – forced 37 industrialised countries and the European community to reduce emissions by five per cent, based on levels from 1990. At the summit, nations met to debate the nature of the 2013 extension and its length, with the alternatives being either five or eight years.

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But alongside these negotiations, another deal needed to be hammered out. During the 2011 conference in Durban, South Africa, the parties agreed an action plan to establish a new and universal emission reduction agreement by 2015, to be put into action by 2020, which would include more countries than the current Kyoto deal. Understandably, the nations most eager to combat climate change want the Kyoto extension to stretch across eight years, thus finishing when the new agreement takes over.

Yet the most pressing issue is the mentioned Kyoto extension. Changes are needed, and there is a near universal agreement that previous measures have been insufficient to limit emissions. Among the problems is the original Kyoto deal’s decision not to bring ‘developing countries’ under legal obligation, referring to the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ – a notion that industrial countries emit more carbon dioxide than emerging economies, and therefore should bear the brunt of the reductions.

This, crucially, excludes Brazil, South Africa, China and India; all seen as developing countries, which has lead the Unites States to refuse to implement the agreement over fears it would hand an advantage to China’s soaring economy. The two are the worst climate offenders on the planet and, although countries outside the Kyoto deal were supposed to implement voluntary schemes based on pledges made at the Copenhagen conference in 2009, there is little evidence to suggest they have.

The result has become a global community that continues to aggravate the climate conditions. In November, Germany’s renewable energy institute, which advises the country’s ministries, found that carbon emissions had risen by 2.5 per cent in 2011, reaching a record level. The worst offender was China, which released 50 per cent more gasses than the United States. In third was India followed by Russia, Japan and Germany. Those grim figures followed a report released in May last year by the International Energy Agency, which said global emissions had increased by 3.2 per cent.

The warnings are loud and many. The global average temperature has risen by 0.74˚C since the late 1800s and scientists say it may increase by 3-4˚C within 2100. A recent report published by the World Bank said if that was to happen, which is likely, the poorest countries will be the main sufferers amid food shortages, rising sea levels and drought. The signs are already there; the Artic sea ice in September sunk to a record minimum, while the Hurricane Sandy – which brought New York to its knees – has been linked to climate change. So too were the floods in Italy shortly after.

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There are financial concerns as well. A coalition of the world’s largest investors, which together are responsible for managing $22.5trillion in assets, recently called on governments to step up action over climate change and pour money into clean-tech and renewable energy, or risk investment losses and disruption to economies. In a letter, they said: “Further delay in implementing adequately ambitious climate and clean energy policy will increase investment risk for institutional investors and jeopardise the investments and retirement savings of millions of citizens.”

Few disagree that negotiations must gather pace. The 2011 conference in Durban was criticised for leaving out crucial details, such as the length of the Kyoto extension, with the EU credited by some for keeping talks alive. The intervention of small island nations, whose location close to the ocean makes them vulnerable to rising sea levels, also helped. Yet if the UNFCCC’s original goal – ‘to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system’ – is to be reached, more needs to be done. And very soon.

Photos: Jan Martin Will, Gwoeii, SVLuma [all via Shutterstock.com].

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