Doha: It’s the end of the world as we know it

As the latest round of climate-change talks show, the Kyoto Protocol is over and seems unlikely to be replaced. Good.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

It’s like a fly banging its head against a window pane, desperately trying to get to the other side and uncomprehending as to why it never succeeds. Except this is a 17,000-strong swarm of flies taking part in its annual exercise in futility. Yes, there’s another UN climate conference going on, though you might well have missed it.

The eighteenth Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – there’s a good reason they call it COP18 – is taking place in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The small Arab state is, by some measures, the richest country in the world per head of population, a position built on the fact that it has the third-largest reserves of natural gas in the world. The conference has been running since 26 November and is due to end on Friday. But no one is predicting any kind of dramatic deal.

Which is a bit of a problem for those who run this peculiar show because another thing that ends soon is the Kyoto Protocol. Signed 15 years ago in Japan, the protocol aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 37 industrialised countries and the EU to a level five per cent below 1990 levels for the period from 2008 to 2012. There’s no sign of a replacement – which, to be meaningful, really needs to include big developing countries like China, India and Brazil – just endless talks about talks. At last year’s event – COP17 in Durban, South Africa – there was an agreement to negotiate a ‘protocol, legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force applicable to all Parties’ by 2015, to take effect by 2020. As a Greenpeace representative bemoaned then: ‘Right now the global climate regime amounts to nothing more than a voluntary deal that’s put off for a decade.’

It’s all a far cry from the Copenhagen talks in 2009. US president Barack Obama agreed to attend, which meant that there was real anticipation of a major deal. Yet Obama came and Obama went, and nothing of substance was agreed. And so the process has trundled on in its own, other-worldly way. COP18 sees thousands of the kind of people who think we’re screwing up the planet by flying around the world, flying around the world in order achieve bugger all in a country, Qatar, made rich by the very fossil fuels the delegates want left in the ground. It’s like an absurdist flash mob.

The run-up to every COP is marked by a sequence of scary reports about how the world faces eco-apocalypse if we don’t do something right now. COP18 is no exception. For example, the World Bank released a report on 20 November which ‘spells out what the world would be like if it warmed by four degrees Celsius, which is what scientists are nearly unanimously predicting by the end of the century, without serious policy changes’. And what would that world be like, according to the report? We would be threatened by ‘the inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heatwaves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral-reef systems’.

So, what we need is a Kyoto-2 agreement, we are told, but one that is much more ambitious and includes more countries. That must be because the original Kyoto deal was such a roaring success, right? Actually, not so much.

Overall, the countries included in the agreement did meet that five per cent target, on average. However, that was largely thanks to the collapse of eastern Europe’s heavy industry after 1990. Among the EU countries that so love to bang on about the need to cut emissions – and who have declared new, more ambitious targets for 2020 – emissions barely fell at all. Where they did fall substantially, there were specific local reasons. So UK emissions fell by about 10 per cent, but this was largely due to a switch from coal to gas for electricity generation – the so-called ‘dash for gas’ – that largely occurred before the Kyoto agreement was signed. When you take into account the fact that many of the goods now used in Europe are produced in east Asia – effectively exporting the emissions from industry in the process – the Kyoto Protocol has made little or no difference.

But fast-growing countries like China and India weren’t included in Kyoto anyway. So global emissions, as opposed to those from the countries that had emissions targets, have risen since 1990 by about 50 per cent. As one Guardian writer gloomily concluded: ‘Overall, the result is that global emissions have showed no sign of slowing down… In that sense, the Kyoto protocol has been a failure’.

With such a disappointing record, a more sensible conclusion might be that trying to create a whole new international framework along the same lines would be a dumb idea. But the mindset of the UN climate circus is to impose just such a global system, justified by The Science – a very particular and scary take on the real, messy and complex picture we have from actual climate science. The Science ‘demands’ that we take a particular course of action – to cut emissions by bureaucratically agreed amounts by bureaucratically agreed deadlines – whatever the costs and consequences.

Funnily enough, most of the world doesn’t share this view. The US never ratified the Kyoto Protocol and would be very unlikely to back any follow-up deal that didn’t tie in its major economic competitors. China and India, for all the strides they have made in the past two decades, are still very poor countries. Per head of population, and even taking into account the different costs of goods around the world, the International Monetary Fund in 2010-11 ranked China as only the ninety-third richest country in the world, with an economic output per head of population of just $8,387. India was way behind even this, at no.130 in the world, with a GDP per capita of $3,663 – just one tenth that of the UK.

Why would developing countries like these impose barriers to development upon themselves by agreeing to move away from cheap and reliable fossil fuels to expensive and unreliable renewable energy? It is just never going to happen, although climate-change policy guru Lord Nicholas Stern has this week demanded precisely that. The answer for many involved in the UN process would be that it is only ‘fair’ for developing countries to take a massive hit first. But with Western economies struggling already, there is little appetite for the kinds of policies that would be required to achieve such drastic emissions cuts.

A rational approach to climate change would take a more measured view of the science as it stands and accept that even if global temperatures do rise – which one would expect with rising greenhouse gas emissions – we are unlikely to be facing a planetary emergency, just one more problem for humanity to adapt to. People around the world already face droughts, floods, heatwaves and so on. We need development to face and overcome these challenges, whether they are caused by climate change or not – and that includes finding new sources of affordable energy, too.

But rationality is not the order of the day in the overheated world of global climate talks. In this rarefied place, humanity is screwing up the world. Humans must be put in their place and rein in their desire for material comfort. If that outlook can only be implemented at the expense of democracy, so be it. This is a thoroughly reactionary outlook.

No doubt by Friday, some kind of ‘agreement’ will emerge from the Doha talks. Anything to keep the process going. The end of the Kyoto agreement, however, and the failure to create a replacement, should be a cause for celebration. It means that for all the hot air produced at this climate-change roadshow, the world’s leaders do still have some sense that economic growth must continue and that poverty should be eliminated. So how about adding a few more carbon-dioxide emissions to the atmosphere – the bubbles from a few bottles of champagne? Cheers!

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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