Storms, drought to end climate dodge
That the 18th annual climate change conference in Doha might conclude an agreement advancing the size and scope of the emission targets agreed to under the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 was always improbable. These annual United Nations conferences have become a byword for intransigence, delay and postponement, and Doha, unfortunately, proved to be no different. Delegates did agree to extend the protocol until 2020, but no one is attaching much significance to this since the US has never ratified it, China, India and Brazil are not covered by it, and Russia, Canada and Japan have since withdrawn from it.
The conference did manage to agree on a timetable for negotiating a more comprehensive binding deal by 2015 (to come into effect in 2020), but previous history suggests that the required consensus will be all but impossible to achieve. In what looks like a frank admission that the impact of climate change will accelerate in coming decades, the conference also agreed to look at ways to ''address loss and damage associated with the impacts of climate change in developing countries''. The developed nations have already agreed to provide $US100 billion ($954.2 million) in climate change aid but, of course, the details of who will pay, and how much, remain nebulous.
The evidence of global warming, meanwhile, continues to mount. Indeed, the rate at which ice shelves and glaciers are receding suggest the predictions of climate change scientists are, if anything, on the conservative side. In a recent report, the World Bank warned that if current pledges to cut greenhouse emissions were not met, the Earth could warm by 4 degrees Celsius by 2060, triggering heat waves, severe drought and major floods. This, it said, would have ''major impacts on ecosystems and associated services''. A temperature rise of this magnitude would, in all likelihood, trigger a climate tipping point, after which global climate change would become irreversible.
Vapour pours from a steel mill chimney in the industrial town of Port Kembla. Photo: Tim Winborne
If worldwide attempts to boost food security are any indication, many governments are already acutely aware of the adverse impacts of climate change. That so few are actually prepared to back effective measures to deal with it is understandable since all involve self-sacrifice and self-denial. The rich industrialised countries are in a better position to do without, certainly, but they believe the burden cannot be borne by them alone.
This somewhat contentious view is counterbalanced by the fact the developing world is now a significant producer of greenhouse gases. Industrialising countries are aware of the dangers of global warming, but believe their chance at prosperity should not be compromised by artificial limitations to economic growth.
This, too, is a contentious view, and not easily dismissed. Factor in the inevitable corporate and political considerations, and it is little wonder the warnings of scientists are falling on deaf ears.
The apparent futility of reaching a comprehensive and binding international climate agreement has led to calls from some quarters for the Gillard government to reverse its decisions to implement a carbon tax and lift renewable energy targets. That the government's carbon price is already well above international prices has only made those calls more insistent. It is true that Australia's overall emissions are small by international standards, but per capita, we are among the world's worst polluters. Under the Kyoto Protocol, Australia is obliged to reduce emissions by at least 5 per cent by 2020, a quite modest target.
To abandon that goal and instead defer resources towards making the economy stronger and better able to withstand climate change would send a bad message to our neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region, many of whom are highly vulnerable to sea-level rise. Should their populations be displaced on any significant scale, it is unlikely Australia could quarantine itself from the consequences.
Another reason for firm resolve is that effective action on climate change action will occur only if the major emitters (whether overall or per capita) show appropriate leadership. If an agreement can be reached by 2015, China and the US (the world's two largest emitters) will need to be a part of it. If they are, then the laggards like Canada, Japan, India and Brazil may well feel compelled or pressured to join in too.
Needless to say, neither Washington nor Beijing exhibit much enthusiasm for a post-Kyoto agreement. However, more devastating droughts and storms - and the US has already had one of each this year - may tip the balance. Bleak though the outlook for consensus is, a redoubling of efforts is required.