The COP17 climate talks in Durban have finally come to a close, some 36 hours later than they were scheduled to and, amazingly, making more progress than this author thought they would have. To the great tragedy of us all this progress still falls amazingly well short of what climate scientists say is needed. But at least this is officially acknowledged now.
The second paragraph of the COP17 document reads (emphasis in original):
Noting with grave concern the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties' mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with having a likely chance of holding the increase in global average temperature below 2°C of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels,
And a few lines later launches into what to do about this: Keep negotiating towards a "protocol, legal instrument or legal outcome" with the work to be completed "as early as possible but no later than 2015" and to come into effect from 2020.
Negotiators also agreed to move forward with the Green Climate Fund, to help nations better adapt to the dangerous climate changes virtually assured by the lack of ambition shown in other parts of the negotiations. Eventually the Fund hopes to raise and distribute $100 billion per year.
Before moving on to the reaction from environmental groups, let's remember what the IEA recently said about the speed, or lack thereof, in which we are moving away from fossil fuels and the greenhouse gas emissions they create and what that means for the climate.
IEA chief economist Fatih Birol said that if we don't quickly and significantly move begin moving away from fossil fuels by 2017, "the door will be closed forever" on keeping temperature rise below 4°C.
And let's remember what happens above that degree of average temperature increase (also remembering that an average of 4°C means some places, like southern Europe and North Africa will increase by 8°C): Pretty much all hell breaks loose. We can assuredly kiss coral reefs goodbye, count on crop yield decreases of up to 40% in south, southeast, and east Asia, lock in meter-plus sea level rise by the end of this century, usher in widespread civil unrest resulting from resource shortages. And that's just the start of it, and the best of it, just the top-line stats-driven part of it. For the world's extreme poor, those people in Bangladesh, in low-lying island nations, in much of Africa, it's a death sentence.
Civilization itself might not end (as has been suggested without hint of hyperbole in recent days by commenters on the COP), but it certainly will look far far different, and for the more difficult, than anyone alive today has experienced before.
So, back to reactions.
WWF's Samantha Smith, who heads their global and energy initiative:
Governments did just enough to keep talking, but their job is to protect their people. They failed to do that here in Durban today....It is clear today that the mandates of a few political leaders have outweighed the concerns of millions, leaving people and the natural world we depend on at risk. Catastrophe is a strong world but it is not strong enough for a future with four degrees of warming.
Friend of the Earth International chair and Right Livelihood Award winner Nnimmo Bassey:
Delaying real action until 2020 is a crime of global proportions. An increase in global temperatures of 4°C, permitted under this plan, is a death sentence for Africa, small island states, and the poor and vulnerable worldwide. This summit has amplified climate apartheid, whereby the richest 1% of the world have decided that is acceptable to sacrifice the 99%.
Pablo Solón, former climate negotiator for Bolivia:
It is false to say that a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol has been adopted in Durban. The actual decision has merely been postponed to the next COP, with no commitments for emission reductions from rich countries.
In other words, between now and 2020 any emission reduction commitments are whatever individual nations voluntarily commit to. And we've seen how effective those have been, considering global emissions continue to rise, largely unchecked—as UNEP has amply demonstrated in its Emissions Gap Report.
COP17 may be seen as incremental progress, and plenty of pundits and insider NGOs are spinning it that way, but I have a hard time seeing how this amount of incremental progress does anything but ensure 4°C+ of warming, and the resulting environmental and social disasters it will assuredly bring about, comes to pass.
One final point to remember: At current and projected rates of temperature rise, 4°C may be reached by 2050, and surely by 2070. The time to decisively act was years ago, and the outcome of COP17 means nations don't have to take action until years from now—by which time it will be too late.