The annual U.N. climate talks, this year COP-17, began five days ago in Durban, South Africa. The major question this year is what we should do with the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire in 2012. John Prescott, former U.K. labor minister and one of the leading delegates at the Kyoto negotiations, is calling for the Durban delegates to “stop the clocks” on the Protocol, enabling the mechanisms to continue while a new international accord is reached. The UK’s former chief scientist, Sir David King, argues that the Protocol should be abandoned and in its place should be introduced a “muscular bilateralism”, whereby nations commit to voluntary emissions reductions in cooperation with each other.
The Protocol, which was formed at the 1997 talks in Kyoto, stipulates that ratifying countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 5% less than 1990 levels. While it was the first international agreement to reduce greenhouse gases in the hopes of mitigating climate change, its efficiency has been challenged by many factors, not least of which is the United States’ refusal to ever ratify it. Further setbacks include the lack of mechanisms to ensure that ratifiers stick to their commitments and the fact that developing countries such as India and China are exempted from lowering emissions. Precott’s plan assumes that another international accord will actually be reached and that everyone will participate. In short, another Kyoto Protocol.
Where Prescott’s plan seems too complacent, King’s proposal seems too optimistic. It sounds great–bottom-up change propelled by common understanding of this enormous problem or even just by the realization that our emissions are putting disproportionate burdens on the health and security of people in developing countries. But the U.S. and China, the two biggest emitters in the world, have not shown themselves to be capable of putting aside profits in favor of something like the environment. The leading U.S. delegate in Durban, Jonathan Pershing, is quoted as saying that “there [are] an infinite number of pathways to stay below 2 degrees Centigrade” (a 2-degree C increase being the upper limit for avoiding what scientists agree is dangerous climate change; many small island nations would be underwater at this point). This sentence alone is enough to capture the general are-we-done-yet? attitude of the U.S. in international climate talks.
In the face of these two suggestions’ shortcomings, it’s hard to imagine a solution. As Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell puts it, “nothing short of an all-out social or technological revolution is going to save us from crossing over into the realm of ‘dangerous’ climate change.” We need to reframe the discussion in terms that highlight the necessity of immediate action and account for the inevitable hardships billions of people will suffer even at an increase of 2 degrees Centigrade.