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Cancun climate change conference: it's time for politicians – and the EU – to buck up

United Kingdom
The Telegraph
Geoffrey Lean

Half empty or half full? And will the glass grow fuller or drain down even more? These are two crucial questions on the world’s response to global warming which will be addressed, and may well be largely answered, at the next major set of international negotiations on climate change, opening in the Mexican sea-side resort of Cancun on Monday.

Let me explain. Despite the failure of last year’s Copenhagen climate summit to come up with a formal agreement to reduce pollution by greenhouse gases – or even to make much progress towards one – some 80 countries, responsible for 80% of the world’s emissions, were stimulated by it to announce new targets for controlling them. And a new report, compiled by the United Nations Environment Programme, now calculates that these pledges – by industrialised countries to reduce their emissions, by developing ones mainly to curtail their growth – amount to about 60% of what will be needed to keep the average world temperature rising more than two degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels, seen as the point at which global warming is likely to run out of control.

Specifically, says the report, if nothing is done, annual emissions of greenhouse gases are likely to rise from the equivalent of 48 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide to 56 gigatonnes by 2020. If all the pledges are fully implemented, that could reduce the growth to 49 gigatonnes. But to be on course for keeping the temperature increase to two degrees or less, they would need to come down to 44 gigatonnes. That leaves a gap of five gigatonnes that would have to be filled by other measures beyond the most ambitious announcements to date. This could be done in a variety of ways, including slashing subsidies on fossil fuels, reducing at present uncontrolled emissions from ships and aircraft, and addressing other causes of climate change, such as black carbon – puffed out by diesel engines and inefficient Third World cooking stoves, and itself one of the world’s major causes of illness and death, particularly among children – and HFCs, greenhouse gases that replaced the ozone-destroying HCFCs.

Technically the glass is half full: the job can be done. What is more, doing it would almost certainly increase prosperity and employment, rather than reduce it, as labour-intensive industries developing technologies for saving energy and producing it from renewable sources emerge and grow. Politically, however, it is decidedly half empty. Many countries presented their targets as a range, promising to aim for the maximum reductions if other nations did the same, but only pledging to work towards the minimum level in the meantime. And ever since, governments have been playing “after you, Claude”, waiting for others to begin. Despite a determined push by Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, and his French and German counterparts for example, the European Union has refused to commit to its higher level of 30% reductions by 2020, sticking to its minimum 20% target. If only the minimum targets are achieved, the report concludes, emissions will rise to 53 gigatonnes, not much less than the consequence of carrying on as usual.

Furthermore, with world leaders traumatized by their experiences in Copenhagen, most of the political drive to tackle carbon change has disappeared over the last twelve months. No-one is expecting a breakthrough. Indeed many predict that failure in Mexico could lead to the abandonment of serious UN climate negotiations altogether: Connie Hedegaard – who, as the Danish environment minister, chaired most of the Copenhagen meeting – says that it would put “the whole process in danger”. Optimists hope that a number of incremental successes in Mexico will rebuild confidence and help re-establish trust, setting up the possibility of reaching a landmark agreement at the next big meeting in South Africa next year. But, unless much more political commitment emerges from somewhere, that glass is going to carry on getting emptier.

El contenido de las noticias que se presentan en esta sección es responsabilidad directa de las agencias emisoras de noticias y no necesariamente reflejan la posición del Gobierno de México en este u otros temas relacionados.


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