To say that expectations were low for last week’s Durban climate conference would be an understatement. The possibility that the talks would produce any semblance of a legally binding deal compelling member states to reduce carbon emissions seemed so remote that any progress, no matter how perfunctory, would seem like a victory. The talks were by no means a victory, but nevertheless a deal was reached. Even if it was just an agreement to one day make a legally binding deal. So we have a deal to agree a deal, that would be fine if anthropogenic climate change wasn’t a rather pressing issue – again, an understatement.
The presumably purposeful synchronisation of Attenborough’s latest awe-inspirer Frozen Planet with the conference, could have created a ‘perfect blizzard’ for momentum to build, and for progress to be made. This potential was never realised however, and press coverage instead focused on Canada’s unpopular decision to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol, and the controversy regarding the decision not to show the final climate change orientated episode of Frozen Planet in the USA, although it has since been announced that the series will be shown in its seven-part entirety.
Both of these issues are deeply troubling. The Kyoto protocol is the only existing legally binding treaty enforcing a reduction in emissions and so for Canada, as a nation with a hefty supply of oil, to pull out, sets a poor precedent. The protocol is incompatible with Canada’s future plans to extract oil from their tar sands, an unconventional source of oil, which takes substantially more effort than extracting ‘normal’ oil and so will result in higher greenhouse gas emissions. This is in contrast to the ease with which Canada ‘extracted’ itself from the Kyoto protocol, highlighting a major shortcoming of ‘legally binding’ treaties – they’re not strictly speaking ‘binding’.
Now that we have our deal to make a deal on reducing emissions, the process is postponed and a treaty will most likely not be written until 2015, and will not come into effect until 2020. Apathy from the (global) general public to the line from scientists that action will be coming ‘too late’ is abound, but when it comes to this quite pressing issue, there’s no time like the present. When a treaty is eventually written, there’s no guarantee all the member states of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) will agree to sign and be bound by it.
In order to set a quota for greenhouse gas emissions, it first must be determined how much a given country currently emits. A major problem arises when it comes to assigning ‘ownership’ of emissions to countries. It’s all very well basing it on a per person basis to account for differing population densities but this doesn’t take into consideration key cryptic factors. For instance historical emissions (the sum total of a country’s emissions over time) are neglected, which are larger for example in western countries such as the USA or UK. The per capita approach also fails to incorporate emissions produced in countries such as China, which are the so-called ‘factories of the world’, in that much of their emissions are produced through the course of producing goods for export to other countries. Which countries do these emissions ‘belong’ to?
The complications of a global legally binding treaty are numerous and so some commentators are questioning the necessity of such a deal. Is it enough for individual countries to act independently and set their own quotas? In practice this is probably just as unworkable, if not worse, than a global treaty. But just as Britain has recently shown itself to be a lone ranger in Europe, it could now also take the initiative, go against the grain, and bypass a climate treaty by drastically cutting its emissions – following in the carbon footprints of the Maldives, set to become the first carbon-neutral country.