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Durban Climate Conference: The Only Way is (Bottom) Up

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Governments can hardly claim they haven't been warned. In the last few weeks, four pieces of news have landed on their desks that ought to cause them grave concern. These weren't the latest growth rates or unemployment figures, or the latest credit rating agency downgrades. But they are every bit as worrying.

First they heard from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in California that 2010 was by far a record year for CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuel.

Then they heard from PwC that 2010 was the first year since 2000 when the world actually increased the 'carbon intensity' of growth. The International Energy Agency, meanwhile, published calculations showing that on current trends, by 2017, built and commissioned energy infrastructure will account for the entire carbon budget needed to keep the world from heating by more than 2°C. And in case any governments needed reminding that this would be a problem, a special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just concluded that the risk from extreme weather events is likely to increase if the world continues to warm.

In a parallel universe where people were rational and facts influenced behaviour, world leaders would be flocking to the United Nations climate negotiations starting in Durban tomorrow to ensure the world agreed collective action to address climate change. Not only are leaders not even turning up, but the chance of a legally binding global deal being agreed is virtually nil, meaning that when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, no successor will be in place.

Worse, major developed country governments now appear united in giving up on reaching any kind of global agreement on climate change until 2016 and in wanting to postpone its entry into force until 2020.

The United States, Canada, Russia and Japan have all voiced their opposition to extending the Kyoto Protocol. They will only agree to new emission reduction targets as part of a global agreement in which major developing countries also pledge to take action.

Even then, the US President is in no position to ratify any such agreement through Congress.

Meanwhile, although China and other major emerging economies have domestic low carbon commitments, they object to making them legally binding as part of a global deal. They want the developed world to commit to extending the Kyoto Protocol, because they regard it as the sole means of ensuring developed countries cut greenhouse gas emissions.

This circular argument has been raging for years - it prevented governments at the Copenhagen climate talks from agreeing a binding global deal and it will prevent ministers in Durban from doing so too.

Even if at end of the summit, some progress is made in some areas, it is hard to be optimistic. But perhaps it is time we stopped disappointing ourselves on an annual basis by pinning all our hopes on a global deal. If change is not being driven by global-level agreements, it is at a country level. There is a genuine sense today that a growing number of countries want to act, to put themselves on a low carbon path, regardless of what happens internationally.

Beyond the progress steadily being made in the European Union, Australia has just passed a carbon tax (setting a price of carbon that is almost double the European cost) that will evolve into an emissions trading scheme by 2015, California starts its emissions trading scheme in 2013, and China and South Korea are both developing carbon trading programmes of their own.

Developing countries are also now beginning to receive $28 billion of 'fast-track' finance pledged by developed countries to help limit the growth of greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate.

Progress is being made and the more governments can ensure their national plans are compatible, the more likely they will be to ultimately achieve a global solution. Even then, the need to comply with such an agreement will only be one driver (if an important one) of action - cost savings, energy security, access to new markets and enhanced brand value all remain powerful motivators of business action to reduce carbon.

So while a global deal on climate change remains desirable, its absence should not prevent action from the bottom up. Targets are no substitute for the hard work that is needed to put the policies and support in place to improve energy efficiency, deploy low carbon technologies and drive innovation in the technologies of the future. That is where governments should put their energy.

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