Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Disturbing Durban: The world starts to act on climate change

The tag line for the Durban Conference was "Climate Change in balanced fashion". That these corporate wankwords hide as much as they reveal was shown in the angry environmentalists' respone to the conference. Those who can see we are in a spot of bother 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, particularly as the likely outcome is a further increase in carbon emissions in the short term. But while they are right, the Greens are showing their usual tendency to forget realpolitik: this latest deal is as good as the governments of the world were willing to give at the time, giving their widely differing places at the table. This is not no action and the agreement builds on the small steps taken at Bali, Copenhagen and Cancun agreements to give a roadmap towards worldwide reductions in 2020 and that is mostly a good thing.

There are things the Greens are right to be angry about. 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 species extinction. Current best estimates have atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration expecting to exceed 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 of our marine organisms evolved.

Earth relies on the greenhouse effect to sustain life. But 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 in sea levels 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 3m. If Greenland once again resembled its name it would add 7m to water levels.

This picture is a 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 mitigation measures. Even at the likeliest levels of 0.3m in 2100, that rise is enough to obliterate many island nations. Without the power to influence conferences except by emotion, the islanders' biggest challenge will be to preserve their nationality without a territory. Believing such a loss ia temporary has lawyers rushing to the Law of the Sea and the UN Convention to see how such states could survive “in exile”.

Despite the depression that starts this kind of 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. The year 1990 is used as the benchmark year for all emissions as this was around 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.

20 years down the track, the scientists still have difficulty selling their message, if some sections of the right and the media are to be believed while on the other side, the Greens thinks we are not moving fast enough. 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. The problem is the Kyoto non binding countries led by China and the Middle East have greatly expanded their emissions in that time.

This is why a global agreement iis so important. The developing countries have a good point 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.

This is why China and India ultimately signed the agreement. Let no one underestimate what was achieved.It is the first global deal that scales back our fossil fuel economy. 2020 is a long way away and there will be more 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. But the decision offers a clear signal the ship is turning and passengers need to look the other way. The markets will now do their bit by promoting investment in industries that best fit the new model.

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 at least 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 will mean that it will have little genuine effect on the nation’s massive 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 to deal with the problem. And Australia has an enforcing mechanism. Whether that is all too little too late is for our grandchildren to judge.

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