Climate change: An agreement to make an agreement

In Durban, South Africa, participants extended the Kyoto Protocol for another five years, but negotiating a legally binding deal on reducing emissions was put off to the future.

Depending on whom you ask, the latest U.N. climate summit was either a breakthrough or a flop, said the Johannesburg Business Day in an editorial. First, the good news: The deal reached in Durban, South Africa, last week extended the Kyoto Protocol—the global treaty on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, which expires next year—for another five years and created a Green Climate Fund to help poor countries adapt to climate change. Most important, all nations agreed to negotiate a legally binding deal on reducing emissions. From the perspective of international negotiating, then, the meeting was a resounding success. But “from the perspective of saving the planet from what science tells us will be irreversible and damaging climate change,” it was “a dismal failure.” Agreeing to reach an agreement in the future would be fine if we had all the time in the world. Climate change, though, is happening now.

The EU did its best, said Frank McDonald in The Irish Times, in pushing for a pact with teeth. It forged an alliance with the small island states—which “fear they could be wiped off the map,” literally, as sea levels rise—to put pressure on the U.S., China, and India, the “big emitters that opposed an ambitious deal.” But the U.S. was never going to sign on to a legally binding deal. “Anything that smacked of a serious commitment would be unsalable back home because of the toxic political dynamics in Washington, where Republicans are both skeptical and hostile.” So we’ve ended up with yet another promise to do something a few years from now—a promise the next U.S. administration can easily decline to honor.

The problem is that the Americans insisted on treating their country and China equally, said Zhu Yuan in the Beijing China Daily. Now that the U.S. has “shifted the bulk of its manufacturing” to China, it wants us to cut emissions—though it did nothing of the sort while it was an industrial power. The U.S. is also ignoring the vast differences in our populations and living standards, said the Beijing Global Times. “The energy consumed by some middle-class American households in a year could actually power a whole village in rural China.”

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China may grumble, but it got exactly what it wanted, said Patricia Adams in the Toronto National Post. The Green Climate Fund is supposed to provide money to help poor countries invest in renewable energy rather than in coal and oil. Since China is the main producer of renewable-energy technology, the fund is essentially a giant subsidy to China. What did China have to offer up to get this windfall? Merely a pledge to “consider subjecting itself to Kyoto II after 2020.” Of course, China will back out. But then, so will the rich nations—when was the last time donor countries actually coughed up the money they promised for any worthy cause? Earthquake-ravaged Haiti, for example, is still waiting. “In the meantime, backs can be patted all round.”

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