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Durban failed: Relax, everyone

Only agreement is to keep going to conferences

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Analysis The United Nations Organisation's COP17 climate conference has finished - and if you're a concerned energy user in IT manufacturing, an investor, or simply taxpayer, there shouldn't be anything the draft agreement to worry you. Not any more than you have to worry about already.

The two-week long gathering of 15,000 was intended to devise a successor to the Kyoto Treaty. Kyoto was signed by over 190 countries, and pledged them to reduce CO2 emissions by 5.2 per cent by next year, from 1990 levels. It also pledged to create an adaptation fund for poorer countries.

At Durban, no successor emerged, and the conference attendees have simply agreed to carry on attending climate conferences. As the UNFCC reminds us:

The 18th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC, plus the 8th session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol), will take place in Qatar from 26 November to 7 December 2012.

Kyoto's targets, which have been missed by almost every signatory, will be extended to 2017. The Durban signatories made the aspiration that something should be in place by 2020, and this something should be "a new protocol, another legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force" to be agreed by 2015.

Meanwhile the Green Climate Fund is supposed to find €100bn of cash donations a year to send to developing countries each year by 2020. One wit described this as a plan "to shift wealth from the first world’s poor to the third world’s rich without making any difference in climate control". With developed economies crucified by private and sovereign debt, and the credit system even worse, this was never likely to happen - and Durban didn't see any commitments from anybody to finance the fund.

When the COP15 conference in Copenhagen two years ago failed to come up with a Kyoto successor, this was "news" to nobody except the professional media and activists. What had emerged in the year-long run up (a series of conferences attended by around 7,000) was fascinating. The emerging BRIC countries (Brazil, Russian, India, China) were not prepared to sacrifice economic growth, the fastest way of alleviating human suffering. This economic growth needs cheap energy, and the fastest way to ensure a supply of cheap energy - for the time being - is by using fossil fuels. These nations represent a third of the planet's population and almost all of its economic growth in recent years, and COP17 host South Africa joined the grouping last year.

The BRICS effectively isolated the only major proponent of a binding Kyoto successor, the EU, and with US completely indifferent (President Obama not prepared to sacrifice a penny of political capital on a lost cause), the result was a foregone conclusion. No Kyoto successor was ever going to be remotely likely.

Some of the more insane proposals failed even to get on the agenda. One, a 138-page peach of a document [pdf, 1.4MB] called the 'Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action Under the Convention' proposed banning selling anything derived from the Earth for profit ("there will be no commodification of the functions of nature") and "The recognition and defence of the rights of Mother Earth to ensure harmony between humanity and nature".

In addition, the Draft called for "the removal of all obstacles, including intellectual property rights and patents on climate-related technologies to ensure the transfer of technology to developing countries" - enacted through compulsory licenses through TRIPS. A move guaranteed to freeze investment in "clean technology" overnight. Like the commodification proposal, this was ignored.

So Durban failed. But does it matter?

Kyoto created carbon trading mechanisms such as the EU's ETS (Emissions Trading Scheme) and saw big business warm to climate change. It saw an expanded role for the UNO, with every European carbon unit (EUA) validated by UNFCCC. It created a vast artificial market trading in an artificial product, that only two years ago was predicted to be the biggest commodity market in the world. That doesn't look likely in the current slump.

Even Japan, mired in recession for most of the past two decades, overshot its Kyoto target by almost 8 per cent. It's only economic powerhouses such as Bhutan and Papua New Guinea who can be judged to be "sufficiently" on course, carbon-wise. The only serious country which has hit Kyoto is Norway, which draws much of its power generation needs from hydroelectric. Collectively, the EU has reduced CO2 since 1990 slightly, but this is vastly outweighed by the unstoppable development of India and China. (Even a Euro catastrophe isn't expected to derail BRICS growth - as they replace export growth with internal economic demand). Having given their populations a glimpse of modern life, no Indian or Chinese political leader can be expected to send their population back to the Stone Age.

This means UN CO2 treaties now look like a massive vanity exercise for European policy-makers, bureaucrats and activists - a venue to talk amongst themselves. While they're busy talking about saving the world, the BRICS nations are actually creating a new one. ®

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