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Are the Durban Climate Talks--or Climate Talks in General--Doomed?


durban-delegatesAfter more than 15 years of international climate negotiations, it has become ever more clear that all the carbon dioxide emitted to shuttle diplomats from city to city to hash out a regime to curb climate change has been largely wasted. The success of harried diplomacy in Kyoto in 1997 has given way to Japan buying its way out of emissions reductions in 2011—and refusing to sign up for more. The European Union will trade its way into greenhouse gas cuts, whereas Canada—among the globe's worst emitters on a per capita basis—has decided to break its pledge to reduce. The U.S., the world's largest emitter during the bulk of such negotiations, has never officially accepted any legally binding targets under international climate treaties. Nor has China, which has gone from being a developing nation to the planet's biggest source of human-made greenhouse gases in that same span.

If the goal has been to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases, climate talks have been a failure. The only things that have delivered real reductions are recessions such as the current one that began in 2008 or wrenching and unpalatable economic change wrought by industrial collapse—Russian emissions have been halved since the heyday of the Soviet Union.

In a few days, I will head (far) south for my fourth United Nations climate conference. The traveling circus touches down in Durban this year and is expected to oversee the end of the Kyoto Protocol, as participants continue the work of creating a successor plan, though not before 2015, according to the latest reports.

That's because countries like Brazil, China and India want that time to continue economic growth, which means more emissions growth. Industrial countries, including the U.S., are looking to use the time to build domestic political support for curbing climate change. As a result of these ongoing delay tactics, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have grown by nearly 6 percent since 1990, rather than declining, and countries like Canada and Australia now spew roughly 30 percent more. "The politics and policy are far from what the science is explaining is really needed in order to avoid the worst impacts," says Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate and energy program at environmental group World Resources Institute. "Things are going in completely the wrong direction."

Given that climate change will be determined by cumulative emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, we are guaranteeing a warmer world—and its attendant impacts. Already we are getting a taste of the kind of weird weather to come: downpours like Hurricane Irene that traumatized the northeastern U.S., a super-outbreak of tornadoes this past April that is among the most deadly weather-related events in U.S. history, or the ongoing, crippling drought in Texas. Ten people died from flooding in Durban itself over this past weekend. "We have experienced unusual and severe flooding in coastal areas in recent times," South African President Jacob Zuma observed in opening the conference. "Durban must take us many steps forward towards a solution that saves tomorrow today."

The only answer for avoiding catastrophic climate change is curbing greenhouse gas emissions, which mostly means burning less fossil fuel. Of course, because the world gets more than 80 percent of its energy from such burning—and 2010 saw the largest amount of such emissions ever—coal, oil and natural gas seem in no danger of being displaced, despite the rapid growth of renewables like wind and solar in recent years. After all, renewables have their own fossil-fuel requirements: steel and cement require coal; plastics come from oil. "A wind turbine is a pure embodiment of power from fossil fuels," observed environmental scientist Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba at an energy summit this past June. Plus, some two billion people still need an energy upgrade from charcoal, wood or dung.

Just in case, however, Saudi Arabia has proposed being compensated for any loss in oil revenues if and when the world does phase out fossil fuels. Maybe that will come in Qatar, host of the next such climate conference in 2012.

Time is not on our side. Just last week the International Energy Agency warned that the world really had only until 2017 to stop the growth in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid global warming of more than two degrees Celsius. That is the avowed goal of recent international climate efforts, such as the Copenhagen Accord and the Cancun Compromise, which appear to be no closer to implementing actual emission reductions. Yet if emissions continue on their present path, that amount of warming— we're already up more than one degree C worldwide—will have happened by 2040 in "large parts of Eurasia, North Africa and Canada," according to a recent study in Nature Climate Change. Simply put, greenhouse gas emissions, which are now at some 48 gigatons of CO2-equivalent per year, must peak this decade and begin to fall.

The Republic of South Africa, the host of this year's climate confab, perfectly embodies the challenge: it is both vulnerable to climate change and an abetter of it through the use (and sale) of coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels. By the time South Africa and big emitters like China and the U.S. get around to restraining greenhouse gas emissions, it may be too late for some of the 190-odd other countries involved in these climate negotiations. "After a year of record emissions growth and the hottest temperatures on record, the push by the world's largest carbon polluters to delay flies in the face of the overwhelming evidence in support of immediate action," argued Ambassador Dessima Williams of Grenada, who heads up an alliance of small island states most threatened by climate change, in Durban. "It is a betrayal not just of small island nations, many of whom would be destined for extinction, but a betrayal of all humanity." Now where have we heard that before?

Image: via Flickr / UNclimatechange

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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