Suicide pact at Durban climate-health summit

by Gwynne Dyer

The Durban climate summit that ended Dec. 11 has been proclaimed a great success. The chair, South Africa’s international relations minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, told the delegates: “We have concluded this meeting with (a plan) to save one planet for the future of our children and our grandchildren to come. We have made history.”

Don’t be fooled. It was an almost total failure.

This time, the rapidly developing country that put up the greatest resistance to a binding global deal was India. (In 2009 and 2010, it was China.) The chief Indian delegate, Jayanthi Natarajan, held out against any legally enforceable treaty through three long days of nonstop, overtime negotiations.

In the end, she agreed that an eventual deal would have “legal force” — but it would not be “legally binding.”

Lawyers get rich arguing over the difference between phrases like these, but that is for the future. The question now is: Given what the Indian government already knows, how could it possibly have taken that position?

Three years ago, while I was interviewing the director of a think tank in New Delhi, she suddenly dropped a bomb into the conversation. Her institute had been asked by the World Bank to figure out how much food production India would lose when the average global temperature was 2 degrees Celsius higher, she said — and the answer was 25 percent.

This study, like similar ones that the World Bank commissioned in other major countries, has never been published, presumably because the governments of those countries put huge pressure on the Bank to keep the numbers secret. But the Indian government undoubtedly knows the truth.

A 25 percent loss of food production would be an almost measureless calamity for India. It now produces just enough food to feed its 1.1 billion people. If the population rises by the forecast quarter-billion in the next 20 years, and its food production falls by 25 percent due to global warming, half a billion Indians will starve.

India will not be able to buy its way out of the crisis by importing food, because many other countries will be experiencing similar falls in production at the same time, and the price of the limited amount of grain still reaching the international market will be prohibitive.

So India should be moving heaven and earth to stop the average global temperature from reaching plus 2 degrees C. But it isn’t.

Like almost every other country, India has signed a declaration that the warming must never exceed 2 degrees, but in practice, the government acts as though it had all the time in the world. Maybe it just can’t visualize a future in which those numbers become the reality. Or maybe it is just too attached to the principle that the “old rich” countries must pay for the damage they have done.

That’s a perfectly reasonable argument in terms of historical justice, for the old rich countries emitted around 80 percent of the greenhouse gases of human origin that are now in the atmosphere. But if only those countries act promptly, then the average global temperature soars through 2 degrees C and Indians start to starve.

Most developed countries do not face similar losses in food production at 2 degrees C, for they are further away from the equator. Their position is merely selfish and shortsighted; India’s is suicidal.

Over the past 15 years of climate negotiations, there has been a steady decline in the seriousness of the response. The Kyoto Protocol in 1997 committed the developed countries to stabilize their emissions and then cut them by an average of 6 percent by 2012. Developing countries were exempt from any controls, because they were not then emitting very much. And deeper emission cuts would come in a second phase of Kyoto, beginning in 2012.

Based on what we knew then, it was a cautious but rational response. In the meantime, however, developing country emissions have grown so fast that China now produces much more greenhouse gas than the United States. Global emissions are not in decline, as they should be. Last year, they grew by 6 percent.

So what was the response at Durban?

The 1997 Kyoto targets for the developed countries will be maintained for another five years (with no further cuts), and developing countries will still not accept any legal restraints on their emissions. Then everyone will sign a more ambitious deal (still to be negotiated) by 2015 — and the new targets, whatever they are, will acquire “legal force”, whatever that means, by 2020.

By that time, annual global emissions will probably be at least twice what they were when the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 — and the 2-degree barrier will probably be visible only in the rearview mirror.

The outcome at Durban could have been even worse — a complete abandonment of the concept of legal obligations to restrict emissions — but it was very, very bad.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.