Gwynne Dyer: Durban climate-change conference was an almost total failure

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      The Durban climate summit that ended on Sunday (December 11) has been proclaimed a great success. The chair, South Africa’s international relations minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, told the delegates: “We have concluded this meeting with [a plan] to save one planet for the future of our children and our grandchildren to come. We have made history.” Don’t be fooled. It was an almost total failure.

      This time, the rapidly developing country that put up the greatest resistance to a binding global deal was India. (In 2009 and 2010, it was China.) The chief Indian delegate, Jayanthi Natarajan, held out against any legally enforceable treaty through three long days of nonstop, overtime negotiations. In the end, she agreed that an eventual deal would have “legal force”—but it would not be “legally binding”.

      Lawyers get rich arguing over the difference between phrases like these, but that is for the future. The question now is: given what the Indian government already knows, how could it possibly have taken that position?

      Three years ago, while I was interviewing the director of a think tank in New Delhi, she suddenly dropped a bomb into the conversation. Her institute had been asked by the World Bank to figure out how much food production India would lose when the average global temperature was two degrees Celsius higher, she said—and the answer was 25 percent.

      This study, like similar ones that the bank commissioned in other major countries, has never been published, presumably because the governments of those countries put huge pressure on the bank to keep the numbers secret. But the Indian government undoubtedly knows the truth.

      A 25 percent loss of food production would be an almost measureless calamity for India. It now produces just enough food to feed its 1.1 billion people. If the population rises by the forecast quarter-billion in the next 20 years, and meanwhile its food production falls by 25 percent due to global warming, half a billion Indians will starve.

      India will not be able to buy its way out of the crisis by importing food, because many other countries will be experiencing similar falls in production at the same time, and the price of the limited amount of grain still reaching the international market will be prohibitive. So India should be moving heaven and earth to stop the average global temperature from reaching +2 degrees. But it isn’t.

      Like almost every other country, India has signed a declaration that the warming must never exceed two degrees, but in practice the government acts as though it had all the time in the world. Maybe it just can’t visualize a future in which those numbers become the reality. Or maybe it is just too attached to the principle that the “old rich” countries must pay for the damage they have done.

      That’s a perfectly reasonable argument in terms of historical justice, for the old rich countries emitted around 80 percent of the greenhouse gases of human origin that are now in the atmosphere. But if only those countries act promptly, then the average global temperature soars through +2 degrees and Indians start to starve.

      Most developed countries do not face similar losses in food production at +2 degrees, for they are further away from the equator. Their position is merely selfish and short-sighted; India’s is suicidal.

      Over the past 15 years of climate negotiations there has been a steady decline in the seriousness of the response. The Kyoto Protocol in 1997 committed the developed countries to stabilize their emissions and then cut them by an average of six percent by 2012. Developing countries were exempt from any controls, because they were not then emitting very much. And deeper emission cuts would come in a second phase of Kyoto, beginning in 2012.

      Based on what we knew then, it was a cautious but rational response. In the meantime, however, developing country emissions have grown so fast that China now produces much more greenhouse gas than the United States. Global emissions are not in decline, as they should be. Last year, they grew by six percent.

      So what was the response at Durban? The 1997 Kyoto targets for the developed countries will be maintained for another five years (with no further cuts), and developing countries will still not accept any legal restraints on their emissions. Then everyone will sign a more ambitious deal (still to be negotiated) by 2015—and the new targets, whatever they are, will acquire “legal force”, whatever that means, by 2020.

      By that time, annual global emissions will probably be at least twice what they were when the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997—and the +2 degree barrier will probably be visible only in the rear-view mirror. The outcome at Durban could have been even worse—a complete abandonment of the concept of legal obligations to restrict emissions—but it was very, very bad.

      Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

      Comments

      9 Comments

      NoLeftNutter

      Dec 14, 2011 at 2:04pm

      Gwynne, most reports show that not only has world food production increased per capita over the past 50 years but worldwide per capita consumption is also increasing. All of this when the world is on the verge of a catastrophic meltdown? Or, did you just pull an anecdotal comment out of your ass to support the false CAGW myth? You must get paid by the column inch.

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      Paolo

      Dec 14, 2011 at 3:04pm

      Yay. It is a failure! Canada doesn't have to send 15 billion tax dollars to third world dictators.

      Climate change is a fraud.

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      Ed Bear

      Dec 14, 2011 at 5:17pm

      Sad that so many have bought into the anti-global warming propaganda that industry has financed. The only conspiracy is the one to delude you into disagreeing with the near unanimous conclusions of the scientific community.

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      Hagar

      Dec 14, 2011 at 9:23pm

      That society has a number of thick-skulled, non-thinking douche bags like NoLeftNut and Paolo is no surprise. That they've managed to form a government is a serious problem. We've treated government and democracy as some sort of remote reality show, or entertainment. It isn't.

      Soon, people with the capacity to understand facts and figures beyond what will fit on a bumper sticker will finally take responsibility for their society. Then, Paolo and NoNuts can get back to crushing beer cans against their heads.

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      Doctor

      Dec 15, 2011 at 8:56am

      Thank you for an astute analysis of the failure of the Durban talks, in which Canada's shameful and selfish actions figure so predominately. The really sad fact is that it's not only the Durban climate talks which ended badly. Our own end will not come easily either. Yesterday the Guardian newspaper reported that a team of Russian scientists have discovered huge plumes of methane gas escaping from the melting permafrost in the Arctic. How do we fix that one?

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      petr aardvark

      Dec 15, 2011 at 5:08pm

      and I just wanted to concur that Peter Kent really is a piece of shite. And Noleftnut and Paolo get back to work, isn't that what the Fraser Institute pays you for?

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      Dennis from Toronto

      Dec 18, 2011 at 12:28pm

      "NoLeftNutter" might be right about food production increasing, but clearly doesn't take into account a natural disaster like a major earthquake or volcanic eruption which most scientists in these fields tell us is inevitable, and will be a global game changer. We may not have global warming, but a major eruption which will block sunlight for years, and more than half the planet will starve. Add that to what we've already done, and humanity's future is in doubt.

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      Ernest Payne

      Dec 22, 2011 at 4:15pm

      A depressing and accurate summary of the situation. The problem with a 2 degree increase in temperature is that not only India will face starvation but the food exporting countries will face reductions in production that will only increase the desperation.

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      Dorian21

      Dec 24, 2011 at 8:40am

      Noleftnutter: Gwynne has written and published a book devoted to this very subject- "Climate Wars", which you might want to read before beaking off about column inches. Your rudeness is uncalled for; while you may have a point to make, your delivery sucks. Consequently, we discount your comments entirely. Come back when you can offer an informed opinion.

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