Fri, Sep 24, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Time to face the political reality of climate change

Environmentalists are a puny force in comparison with corporate lobbiests, the cowardice of governments and the human tendency to deny what we don’t want to see

By George Monbiot  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The closer it comes, the worse it looks. The best outcome anyone now expects from December’s climate summit in Mexico is that some delegates might stay awake during the meetings.

When talks fail once, as they did in Copenhagen, governments lose interest. They don’t want to be associated with failure, they don’t want to pour time and energy into a broken process. Nine years after the world trade negotiations moved to Mexico after failing in Qatar, they remain in diplomatic limbo. Nothing in the preparations for the climate talks suggests any other outcome.

A meeting in China at the beginning of next month is supposed to clear the way for Cancun. The hosts have already made it clear that it’s going nowhere — there are, a top Chinese climate change official explains, still “huge differences between developed and developing countries.”

Everyone blames everyone else for the failure at Copenhagen. Everyone insists that everyone else should move, but nobody cares enough to make a fight of it. The disagreements are simultaneously entrenched and muted. The doctor’s certificate has not been issued — perhaps, to save face, it never will be, but the harsh reality we have to grasp is that the process is dead.

In 2012, the only global deal for limiting greenhouse gas emissions — the Kyoto protocol — expires. There is no realistic prospect that it will be replaced before it lapses.


The existing treaty took five years to negotiate and a further eight years to come into force. In terms of real hopes for global action on climate change, we are now far behind where we were in 1997, or even in 1992. It’s not just that we have lost 18 precious years. Throughout the age of good intentions and grand announcements, we spiraled backwards.

Nor do regional and national commitments offer more hope. An analysis published a few days ago by the campaigning group Sandbag estimates the amount of carbon that will have been saved by the end of the second phase of the EU’s emissions trading system, in 2012 — after the hopeless failure of the scheme’s first phase we were promised that the real carbon cuts would start to bite between 2008 and 2012.

So how much carbon will it save by then? Less than one-third of 1 percent.

Worse still, the reduction in industrial output caused by the recession has allowed big polluters to build up a bank of carbon permits which they can carry into the next phase of the trading scheme. If nothing is done to annul them or to crank down the proposed carbon cap (which, given the strength of industrial lobbies and the weakness of government resolve, is unlikely) these spare permits will vitiate phase three as well.

Unlike the Kyoto protocol, the EU’s emissions trading system will remain alive. It will also remain completely useless.

Plenty of nations — like the UK — have produced what appear to be robust national plans for cutting greenhouse gases. With one exception (the Maldives), their targets fall far short of the reductions needed to prevent more than 2˚C of global warming.


Even so, none of them are real. Missing from the proposed cuts are the net greenhouse gas emissions that are outsourced to other countries and that are now imported in the form of manufactured goods. Were these included in the UK’s accounts, alongside the aviation, shipping and tourism gases excluded from official figures, the UK’s emissions would rise by 48 percent.

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