Can US derail UN climate change talks?

Delegates from over 150 countries are currently meeting in Vienna to discuss how to move on from the 1997 Kyoto protocol. The UN targets on carbon emissions set at Kyoto will expire in 2012, and this week’s convention is seen as a key opportunity for an agreement to be thrashed out before the official UN climate summit in Bali in December.

Katse Dam, Lesotho. The southern African country is suffering as a result of climate change

The talks began yesterday with an appeal from a group of the 48 least-developed nations present. In the past this group has focused its criticism on the failure of the rich industrial nations to take climate change seriously, but this time they asked rapidly developing countries including China and India to do more to cut their emissions. A Friends of the Earth representative commented that “They are putting proposals not just to industrial countries but also some large emitters that are developing countries to do something about their emissions.”

In previous years, developing countries have presented a united front against the industrial nations, so this appeal from poorer developing countries to those developing more rapidly could be a crucial step towards a world order that prioritises environmental protection over industrial growth. However, the discussion did not go so far as to request mandatory targets for reducing emissions for developing countries.

As we reported recently, China has overtaken the US as the largest single emitter of CO2, and its rapid growth has resulted in polluted cities and contaminated produce. However, we should not forget that the US, solely responsible for roughly 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, refused to sign up to the Kyoto targets at all.

The US will be hosting its own meeting in Washington for “major economies on energy security and climate change”. The White House claims this will help to contribute to “a global agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change by 2009” but critics view it as an attempt to derail the Bali summit. Austrian environment minister Josef Pröll pointed out that climate change “is a huge challenge that can only be dealt with at a global level. We do not have much time.”

It is vital that both the US and the developing nations are included in any targets that replace the Kyoto protocol, as otherwise the efforts of those countries who signed up to Kyoto will have been rendered hopeless. In-fighting and competition between countries is no good when the situation is so critical. This was highlighted by the foreign minister from Lesotho, who spoke about the effects of climate change on agriculture in his country: “The farmers are suffering because nothing happens when it is supposed to – the traditional rainy seasons are no longer predictable. The numbers of droughts have doubled since the late 1970s and when the rains come, they come in torrents.”

Joseph Zacune of Friends of the Earth said that the onus for reducing emissions remained on industrialised countries – with 13% of global population but 45% of carbon emissions – to solve the problem and that a 90% cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 was necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.