The Monitor's View

Keep the climate challenge in focus

An international meeting later this month won’t take big steps, but it can hold everyone’s feet to the fire.

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Most Americans are probably unaware of the huge – and hugely important – climate conference taking place later this month in Durban, South Africa.

Climate change doesn’t have a place on the docket for US political debate. And why should it, when polls show Americans are fixated on immediate fixes to the economy, not a slowly simmering global warming whose most devastating effects won’t be seen for decades.

But ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. Despite the lethargic world economy, greenhouse-gas emissions are soaring. The window on keeping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to no more than 450 parts per million (it’s now up to 390 p.p.m.) is fast closing. That level should keep global warming to less than 4 degrees F. and lessen its biggest effects, from droughts and wild weather events to sea-level rise.

Unless the trend lines in carbon dioxide emission begin to take a dramatic turn in the next few years, that goal is toast.

The Kyoto Protocol, which set carbon-reduction goals for rich countries (and was never ratified by the United States), runs out next year. But the nearly 200 countries meeting in Durban Nov. 28 to Dec. 9 are highly unlikely to agree on a replacement.

For one thing, the biggest source of new carbon emissions has fast been moving away from the US, Japan, and Europe to emerging giants China and India.

China emits about 6.8 tons of carbon dioxide per person, compared with 16.9 tons for the US, says the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. But China’s emissions have tripled since 1990 and could match US levels by 2017. And its population is four times that of the US.

Speaking in Australia this week, President Obama said the US was ready to work on carbon reduction but only hand in hand with China, India, and other major polluters.

The idea of a comprehensive cap-and-trade system, an international market for buying and selling carbon “credits” to slowly ratchet down carbon emissions, remains illusive. Doubts persist about how effectively and honestly it could be administered. It won’t get serious consideration at Durban.

What Durban can do is extend the Kyoto Protocol by a couple of years, keeping current emission goals in place, a maneuver that won’t require going back to governments to ratify a new agreement.

To mollify developing nations, which are likely to feel the adverse effects of climate change most severely, developed countries should recommit to the Green Climate Fund, created at the 2009 climate meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark. Rich nations have contributed little so far, making it essentially an empty shell. Countries in the developing world are expected to need somewhere between $10 billion to $67 billion per year to adapt to climate change, according to four different estimates by groups such as the World Bank and the European Commission.

If countries come up with only an extended agreement, that doesn’t let them off the hook. They must go home and innovate. For example, if China, the world’s biggest carbon emitter, decided to set up its own internal market to buy and sell carbon credits, it could become a building block for an international system.

Everyone at the Durban conference needs to leave recommitted to finding fresh solutions, not only for the sake of their own citizens but for the sake of the world. 

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