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Is the Agreement in Durban Enough to Contain Climate Change?

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Is the deal struck in the final marathon session at COP17 producing the Durban Platform too little, too late?The participants at the U.N. sponsored COP17 climate change talks in Durban, South Africa, managed to come to an agreement on a package of measures that will eventually force all the world’s polluters to take legally binding action. One of the most significant elements of the deal concerns a replacement for the soon to expire Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto protocol is the only global warming fighting treaty we have and it was initially adopted in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. Although there are details that are yet to be worked out, the parties in Durban managed to craft a general agreement that would extend Kyoto for five years from January 1, 2013 until the end of 2017.

Just hours after the landmark agreement was announced in Durban, Canada officially withdrew from Kyoto prompting an Indian official to remark that Canada’s decision could jeopardize gains made at the Durban meeting.

The Canadian Conservative government’s prioritization of the tar sands made it impossible for Canada to meet its emissions targets, which made the rejection of Kyoto inevitable. While the province of Alberta applauded the decision, much of the rest of the world has criticized Canada for its decision to formally withdraw from Kyoto. China’s state news agency, Xinhua, denounced Canada’s decision as “preposterous,” calling it “an excuse to shirk responsibility.”

Chinese Foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin lashed out at Canada, describing Ottawa’s decision as being “against the efforts of the international community,” and “regrettable.” “We hope Canada will face up to its responsibilities and obligations and honor its commitments and actively participate in relevant international cooperation against climate change,” Liu said in Beijing.

A spokesman for France’s foreign ministry called the move “bad news for the fight against climate change.” Japan’s Environment Minister Goshi Hosono told reporters that Canada’s withdrawal was “disappointing,” and noted that it was “indispensable that each country makes efforts” on climate change.

Graham Saul of Climate Action Network Canada said, “It’s a national disgrace. Prime Minister Harper just spat in the faces of people around the world for whom climate change is increasingly a life and death issue.”

Greenpeace Canada spokesman, Mike Hudema, said in a written statement that the Canadian Conservative government “has imposed a death sentence on many of the world’s most vulnerable populations by pulling out of Kyoto.” He said the move “destabilizes” the promise of future action on global warming. “This is a further signal that the Harper government is more concerned about protecting polluters than people.”

Ian Fry, lead negotiator for the vulnerable island nation of Tuvalu, said “it’s an act of sabotage on our future, withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol is a reckless and totally irresponsible act.”

Canada’s irresponsibility badly damages a UN climate process already weakened by divisions. Like the Republicans in the US, Canadian Conservatives use misinformation and fear mongering to sell their irresponsible governance.

To explain its decision, Canada cited the cost of meeting its obligations under Kyoto. However, they fail to factor the costs of climate change. Even the $13.6 billion it would cost to honor Kyoto in Canada is a tiny fraction of the cost of climate change, which could run as high as $91 billion a year in the country by 2050. According to the September 2011 report from the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, climate change will cost Canadians at least $5 billion a year by 2020.

The research reveals that the longer the effects of climate change are ignored, the costlier they become. “Our modeling…shows there is a risk those costs could not be just higher, but much higher,” the report adds. “Getting global emissions down is both in Canada’s economic and environmental interest,” said David McLaughlin, president of the roundtable. In addition to increased health costs, the report estimates that global warming will lead to between five and 10 additional deaths per 100,000 people per year by 2050.

The world may not be able to afford Canada’s renunciation of Kyoto and exploitation of the tar sands. As NASA’s chief climatologist James Hansen said:

“If the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over [for containing global warming].”

As the world’s second largest emitter and as the primary consumer of tar sands oil, the U.S. is both an egregious offender and complicit in Canada’s role as a climate renegade. Even if the parties iron out the details, respect the stipulations and implement the timetables of the Durban agreement, it may not be enough.

Under the Durban Platform, a new global agreement will be negotiated by 2015 and will be implemented by 2020. The Climate Action Tracker scientists indicate that the delay and the absence of more ambitious targets make “catching up on this postponed action…increasingly costly.”

Scientists at the Climate Action Tracker said this puts the world on a path that will see “over 3°C warming with likely extremely severe impacts.”

A global temperature increase of over 3°C could destroy the Amazon rainforest, bleach coral reefs, melt Greenland ice, thaw permafrost in the arctic, and release methane hydrates from the ocean floor.

UN chief negotiator Christiana Figueres said the Durban agreement is the “critical next step,” but also admitted it is “still insufficient.”

“What remains to be done is to take more ambitious actions to reduced emissions, and until this is done we are still headed to over 3 C warming. There are still no new pledges on the table and the process agreed in Durban towards raising the ambition and increasing emission reductions is uncertain it its outcome,” Bill Hare, Director of Climate Analytics said.

The Climate Action Tracker research indicates “the global mean warming would reach about 3.5°C by 2100 with the current reduction proposals on the table. They are definitely insufficient to limit temperature increase to 2°C.”

The Durban agreement is not capable of curbing global warming within acceptable limits and Canada’s support for the tar sands over Kyoto make controlling climate change that much more unlikely.

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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

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