Fifteen years ago, fears about man-made climate change were enough to bind most of the industrialised world into a treaty that was flawed but at least seemed to cement the principle that greenhouse gases must be cut.
Russia, Canada and Japan have said they will not make cuts under a Kyoto Two because they would be meaningless when emerging nations led by China and India have no targets
Yet today – with levels of those gases much higher and climate change more evident in extreme weather – economic slowdown and arguments over who should pay, have all but killed any chance of a meaningful extension to the expiring Kyoto Protocol.
Almost 200 nations are today meeting in Doha, Qatar, until December 7 to at least try. But Russia, Japan and Canada, major economies which signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, have already said they will not sign up to emissions cuts beyond December 31.
The huge developing economies of India and China, now the world’s biggest emitter of gases such as carbon dioxide from fossil fuels that trap the sun’s heat, were anyway not obliged to cut emissions under the Kyoto process.
But campaigners say failure to extend Kyoto will also hobble Doha’s much harder challenge: to work on an entirely new treaty to cap emissions from all countries including developing nations, due to be agreed by 2015 and go into force in 2020.
Meanwhile, man-made climate change is ever more visible.
Arctic sea ice thawed in September to its lowest recorded level, and extreme heatwaves and drought have hit the US and Russia more often than would be expected from historical records, a World Bank report said earlier this month.
Greenhouse gas levels hit a new record last year, despite a world economic slowdown.
Even if all countries fulfil existing commitments, the world will warm by more than 3˚C by 2100 – more than the 2˚C that the countries of the world say should be the limit, and dwarfing the 0.8˚C rise recorded since 1900.
Rising sea levels and more floods, heatwaves, storms and droughts will be the result, the scientists of the UN climate panel say. Less predictable rainfall and higher temperatures are likely to disrupt food and water supplies for a rising population.
The probability that the change is man-made is now at least 90 per cent, the panel says.
“It’s abundantly clear every day that what’s been committed to is far from what’s needed, and you can’t wait until 2020 to be increasing the level of ambition,” said Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute in Washington.
But Russia, Canada and Japan have said they will not make cuts under a Kyoto Two because they would be meaningless when emerging nations led by China and India have no targets.
Kyoto bound almost 40 developed nations to cut emissions by an average of at least 5.2 per cent from 1990 levels by 2008-2012, but also established carbon trading mechanisms, which Russia, Canada and Japan want to preserve.
The US never ratified the Kyoto deal, arguing that it would cost US jobs and that it should include emissions cuts for poorer nations.
If it is allowed to expire, the world will have no legally binding climate plan from 2013, merely national emissions cuts by countries including the EU, Australia and Ukraine that account for just 12 to 14 per cent of global emissions.
The EU has promised a cut in emissions of at least 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, with or without Kyoto, to drive its carbon market.
It argues that cutting emissions makes sense to gain a lead in developing greener technologies.
But many fear that much of the remaining momentum for a shift away from fossil fuels to greener energies such as wind and solar power may be lost, especially as the fight for any kind of economic growth has pushed green issues off the agenda.
Helen Clark, head of the UN Development Programme, said work to stem rising temperatures had been “painfully slow” but that a failure to extend Kyoto would be “extremely serious” for the fight against climate change.
China, India, Brazil and South Africa last week urged an extension of Kyoto as “the essential basis for ambition”, with deeper cuts by rich nations.
They said a new deal from 2015 should preserve a split between rich and poor nations, enshrined in the 1992 climate convention, that obliges developed nations to lead since they have benefited most from burning fossil fuels.
The US and other rich countries say the 1992 division is outdated. China is now the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide and has overtaken Russia as the number two cumulative emitter in history behind the US.
Lack of progress in recent years, including the failure of the Copenhagen summit in 2009, is partly tied to China’s desire to burn more energy to boost growth and US President Barack Obama’s inability to persuade the Senate to cut US emissions.
Obama said that he was a “firm believer” that climate change was real and that there was an “obligation to future generations to do something about it” even as he reaffirmed that his second-term priority would be the economy.
“China wants a few years to grow before it caps its emissions. And the US is happy with that,” said Heike Schroeder of the University of East Anglia in England, who believes that a radical overhaul is needed to revitalise the UN talks.
Developing nations also want assurances in Doha of more aid after the end of a three-year, $10 billion-a-year ‘fast start’ programme intended to promote their use of non-fossil fuels, especially since the rich countries have set a long-term goal of $100 billion a year from 2020.
How the world found out about global warming
• 300 BC: Theophrastus, a student of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, documents that human activity can affect climate. He observes that drainage of marshes cools an area around Thessaly and that clearing of forests near Philippi warms the climate.
•1896: Sweden’s Svante Arrhenius becomes the first to quantify carbon dioxide’s role in keeping the planet warm. He later concluded that the burning of coal could cause a “noticeable increase” in carbon levels over centuries.
• 1957-1958: US scientist Charles Keeling sets up stations to measure carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere at the South Pole and at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. The measurements have shown a steady rise.
• 1988: The UN sets up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess the scientific evidence.
• 1992: World leaders agree the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which sets a non-binding goal of stabilising greenhouse gas emissions by 2000 at 1990 levels – a target not met overall.
•1997: The Kyoto Protocol is agreed in Japan; developed nations agree to cut their greenhouse gas emissions on average by at least five per cent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012. The US stays out of the deal.
• 2007: The IPCC says it is at least 90 per cent certain that humans are to blame for most of the warming trend of the past 50 years. It also says signs that the planet is warming are “unequivocal”.
• 2009: A conference of 193 countries agrees to “take note” of a new Copenhagen Accord to fight climate change, after UN talks in Denmark. The accord is not legally binding and does not commit countries to agree a binding successor to the Kyoto Protocol when its first stage ends in 2012.
• 2011: UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa, agree to negotiate a new accord by 2015 that is “applicable to all” and will come into force from 2020.