JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – The hard-fought deal at a global climate conference in South Africa keeps talks alive but doesn’t address the core problem: The world’s biggest carbon polluters aren’t willing to cut emissions of greenhouse gases enough to stave off dangerous levels of global warming.
With many scientists saying time is running out, a bigger part of the solution may have to come from the rise of climate-friendly technologies being developed outside the U.N. process.
“We avoided a train wreck and we got some useful incremental decisions,” said Alden Meyer, of the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists. “The bad news is that we did very little here to affect the emissions curve which is accelerating, and the impacts of climate change which are climbing day by day.”
Scientists say that if levels of greenhouse gases continue to rise, eventually the world’s climate will reach a tipping point, with irreversible melting of some ice sheets and a several-foot rise in sea levels.
They cannot pinpoint exactly when that would happen, but the two-decade-long climate negotiations have been focused on preventing global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit above current levels by the end of this century.
A report released before the Durban talks by the U.N. Environment Programme said greenhouse gas emissions need to peak before 2020 for the world to have a shot at reaching that target. It said that’s doable only if nations raise their emissions pledges.
In Durban, they did not.
Sunday’s deal extends by five years the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement that has binding emissions targets for some industrial countries but not the world’s biggest carbon polluters, China and the United States.
Climate talks have been bogged down by rifts between rich and poor, between fully industrialized nations and emerging economies, about how to share the burden of reducing greenhouse emissions.
Held back by a skeptical Congress, the U.S. doesn’t want to commit to any binding deal unless it also imposes strict emissions targets on China and India. The latter insist their targets should be more lenient because, historically, the West has a bigger share of the blame for man-made warming.
Meanwhile, the atmosphere keeps filling up with heat-trapping gases from the burning of fossil fuels.
Figures from the U.N. weather agency show the three most powerful greenhouse gases reached record levels last year and were increasing at an ever-faster rate.
Negotiators overcame gridlock in the final hours and kept the process moving by agreeing to start talks on a new binding climate pact, though they couldn’t agree on whether to call it “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force.”
The process now lives on, but the difficult part lies ahead: raising the targets for emissions cuts enough to slow the rise in temperatures. Right now, there are few signs suggesting that’s going to happen.