Disturbing Durban: The world starts to act on climate change

The tag line for the Durban Conference was “Climate Change in balanced fashion” leading to angry environmentalists’ response it was deeply unbalanced. They are spitting chips over the Durban agreement. We cannot afford no action until 2020, they said.

The consequences to the planet of a “gaping 8 year hole” are potentially catastrophic, as the likely outcome is a further increase in carbon emissions in the short term. But environmentalists are showing their tendency to forget realpolitik: this latest deal is as good as the governments of the world were willing to give. This agreement is built on the small steps of Bali, Copenhagen and Cancun agreements to give a roadmap towards worldwide reductions in 2020.

Sea level rises caused by warmer temperatures will continue long after the oven is turned down in 2020. There is also the prospect of mass extinction of species. Current best estimates have atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration exceeding 500 parts per million and global temperatures to rise by at least 2°C by 2050 to 2100. These values significantly exceed anything in the least the past 420,000 years during which most marine organisms evolved.

Earth relies on the greenhouse effect to sustain life. CO2, methane and nitrous oxide all absorb infrared energy and keep heat energy on Earth and all are on the increase. The effects are varied: the North West Passage is becoming seaworthy again, the 3250 sq km Larsen B ice shelf disappeared in a month in 2002, glaciers in Argentina and Chile are melting at double the rate of 1975 while sea temperature rises are threatening coral reefs across the world.

Even modest increases in sea levels could cause major flooding in many of the world’s low lying megalopolises. If there is a rise of 0.5m, the Majuro Atoll in the Pacific Marshall Islands would mostly disappear. If the sea level rises by 1m, one fifth of Bangladesh goes under as would 13 of the world’s 15 largest cities. If the unstable West Antarctic Ice Shelf replicated the behaviour of Larsen B sea levels could rise as much as 3m. If Greenland once again resembled its name it would add 7m to water levels.

This picture is New York with a 5m rise, not beyond the bounds of possibility though the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report worst case scenario only allows for a maximum of 0.6m to 2100. The report also acknowledges global emissions will grow despite any mitigation measures. Even at the more likely levels of 0.3m by 2100, it is enough to obliterate many island nations. Without the power to influence except by emotion, their biggest challenge will be to preserve nationality without a territory. Believing a loss might be temporary has lawyers rushing to the Law of the Sea and the UN Convention to see how states could survive “in exile”. Despite the depression that starts this thinking, this is profoundly optimistic in the long term.

It speaks to the unending human belief we can fix any problem, including ones caused by our own actions. The annual Climate Change Conference is like a large ship with a slow turning circle. But it is slowly taking effect. 1990 is used as the benchmark year for emissions as this the time science realised there was a major problem. It was also the year UN-steered climate change negotiations started. No-one cared at first. In the 5 years after 1990, carbon emissions worldwide increased from 1 billion tons to 7 billion tons.

Twenty years later, the scientists still have difficulty selling their message. Yet recent International Energy Agency data shows global action is beginning to work. Countries who participated in the Kyoto Protocol were 15% below their 1990 levels two decades later. But Kyoto non binding countries led by China and the Middle East have greatly expanded their emissions in that time.

The developing countries have a point in that historically the West has caused more emissions. But they have learned quickly from Western technology and China is now the world’s biggest emitter. An agreement of “annex” and “non annex” countries no longer makes sense despite the best arguments of India and China.

This is why those countries ultimately signed the agreement. Let no one underestimate what was achieved in Durban this weekend. We have signed the first global deal that scales back our fossil fuel economy. 2020 is a long way away and there will be eight more meetings and eight more frenetic all-night negotiations as nations and economic blocs jostle for position in the brave new world of a post-carbon economy. It does not mean no action until 2020. The decision offers a clear signal the ship is turning. The markets will now promote investment in industries that best fit the new paradigm.

If the Greens are impatient we are not turning fast enough, then rightwing groups such as the Australian Coalition are determined to steer straight ahead regardless. Abbott’s claim the carbon tax is an “international orphan” is wrong on three counts: Australia is not the only country to price carbon, it will be a necessary requirement to send the right market signals to move to renewables, and its overgenerous compensation means it will have little genuine effect on the fossil fuel industry in the short term. By 2020, the world will still be warming to dangerous levels. But an agreement is now in place and Australia has an enforcing mechanism. Whether that is too little too late is for our grandchildren to judge.

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