EU claims climate victory but global warming goes on
By Philip Ebels
Following agreement on a new global climate deal in the early hours of Sunday morning (11 December), the EU was quick to congratulate itself on brokering a "historic breakthrough", but environmental groups and scientists say the deal is far from a good one.
The Durban agreement, as the compromise may well come to be known, after the South-African tourist destination where negotiators from all the world's nations had been gathering for two weeks, is in effect an agreement about plans to come to an agreement.
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Under the deal, a new "legal framework" is to be negotiated among all parties to the UN climate change convention, including China, India and the US - the three biggest emitters of the planet hitherto not bound by any curb on greenhouse-gas emissions. The framework is to be in place by 2015 and operational by 2020.
Meanwhile, the Kyoto Protocol, the existing legally-binding agreement on carbon emissions reductions that expires after 2012, is to be prolonged as something of a bridging period (even though Russia, Canada and Japan have retreated, leaving the EU, Switzerland and Norway as the only signatories).
And it was agreed that rich countries would contribute to paying for poor countries' mitigation efforts by some €100 billion per year as of 2020. How this money is to be raised, however, remains unclear.
The EU had argued for such a road map and had put it forward as a condition to backing a second period of committed emissions reductions under the Kyoto Protocol.
"The EU’s strategy worked. When many parties said that Durban could only implement decisions taken [at earlier climate conferences], the EU wanted more ambition. And got more," said EU climate change commissioner Connie Hedegaard in a statement.
"This is a moment comparable only to, if not surpassing, the success of [the first climate conference in] 1995, which led to the creation and adoption of the Kyoto Protocol," said Polish environment minister Marcin Korolec, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.
Environmental groups, however, point at the fact that even if the world succeeds in cutting its greenhouse-gas emissions as foreseen in the Durban deal, global temperatures would still rise by more than two degrees - a number deemed dangerous by scientists. Above this, warmer weather would lead to rising sea levels, decreased snow cover, droughts and extreme weather events.
"Ordinary people have once again been let down by our governments. Developed nations have reneged on their promises and weakened the rules on climate action," said Sarah-Jayne Clifton, of Friends of the Earth International.
Bas Eickhout, climate scientist and representative of the Greens in the European Parliament delegation to Durban, says the deal is "clearly insufficient, given the urgent action scientists say is needed to avoid dangerous climate change."
Scientists estimate that global mean warming would reach about three-and-a-half degrees by 2100 with the current reduction proposals on the table. "They are definitely insufficient to limit temperature increase to two degrees," according to the Climate Action Tracker, a science-based watchdog.
Not only amounts and timelines were the object of heated discussion, also the way in which the burden of carbon cuts would be distributed among the world's polluters.
Details of the new climate deal have yet to be negotiated, but clear is that the principles behind the Kyoto Protocol, which divides the balance of responsibilities for dealing with climate change between rich and poor nations, will be abandoned, a development cheered by the EU's climate chief.
"We will now get a system that reflects the reality of today’s mutually interdependent world," said Hedegaard, who had argued that such principles is outdated as China has overtaken the US as the world's biggest polluter in absolute terms and other emerging countries such India and Brazil are rising fast.
Developing nations for their part, however, argue that the industrialised world is historically responsible for current greenhouse-gas levels and preventing them from using cheap energy such as that derived from coal denies them the tools used by the global north to develop.
"There are efforts to shift the climate problem to countries that have not contributed to it," said India's environment minister, Jayanthi Natarajan, during her closing speech.