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As U.N. Climate Talks Falter, Nations Progress

Marianne Hedin — December 26, 2012

The 2-week long U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Doha, Qatar ended on December 8. The delegates from nearly 200 nations managed to make little significant headway in meeting an international goal of limiting the ultimate warming of the planet to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, established 3 years ago in Copenhagen – a goal that increasingly seems unattainable.

After many heated discussions, the delegates managed to agree to extend the Kyoto Protocol, to support a previous decision to adopt a new global climate pact by 2015 that applies to both rich and poor nations and to offer promises of financing, albeit vague, to help poor countries address the effects of climate change.  The latter remains one of the most contentious and controversial issues in the climate change debate.  However, the consensus is that, despite the fact that recent data shows that global CO2 emissions keep rising, the delegates failed to deliver a meaningful deal to help us move closer to reducing carbon emissions on a global basis. Although emissions are declining in the developed countries, including the United States (in part due to increasing use of natural gas and renewables and in part because of slow economic growth), the continued rise of emissions in the developing nations, particularly China and India, far outstrips these gains.  According to scientists, global emissions rose as much as 3% in 2011 and are expected to jump 2.6% in 2012.

The Real Struggle

The widening gulf between rhetoric and reality of these climate talks has led some to suggest that we should simply ignore any further international discussions on this topic.  As Michael Jacobs argues in The Guardian, these U.N. negotiations are merely a “sideshow,” while the real struggle is “being waged in energy and finance ministries around the world, and in the boardrooms of energy companies and their bankers.”  With a few exceptions, governments around the world have shown little inclination and will – despite a formal treaty to limit global warming – to adopt the kinds of controls necessary to accomplish the goals that they have pledged.

Perhaps we can console ourselves with a few victories.  Old coal-fired power stations in the United States are being decommissioned and new ones are not being built thanks to federal regulators, environmentalists, and investors who no longer believe that “coal is cheap.” Moreover, renewables are playing an increasing role in supplying electricity, accounting for almost 15% of total installed U.S. operating generating capacity today.  The European Parliament has recently adopted a new energy efficiency directive that will impose mandatory energy-saving measures on member states at all stages of the energy chain.  Most important, the Chinese government has made a $1.7 trillion commitment to invest in clean technology, including alternative energy, smart manufacturing, alternative fuel cars, and an array of other energy efficient technologies.  China’s recent decision to curb its coal production may have more impact on the world’s carbon emissions than any multilateral talks.

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