What if they held a UN climate conference and no one came? That's certainly not the case at this year's COP-17 (Conference of the Parties) meeting now underway in Durban, South Africa, but with expectations for dramatic progress low, and a breakthrough on the scale needed to salvage the expiring Kyoto Protocol nearly unimaginable, it could be where the UN-led process is headed. If Durban fails to deliver the goods, it won't be because the participants were any less concerned about climate change than those at past sessions. Nor will it be because of the latest release of Climategate emails, as embarrassing as some of them should be for the scientists involved. The reason is much simpler, and it's the same one that helped Bill Clinton unseat George H.W. Bush in 1992: "It's the economy, stupid." The solution to climate change is unlikely to be found in Durban or any future COP site until the leaders in Brussels, Washington and other capitals come to grips with the massive economic challenges they face and create the framework for a return to robust growth.
That observation might seem paradoxical, given the linkage between economic growth and the growth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. One climate change expert at Shell recently questioned whether it's even possible to reduce these emissions, because the expansion of low-emission energy sources is merely displacing fossil fuels into other markets where the appetite for them remains insatiable. We've also seen the rebound in emissions that occurred once the US economy began to recover from the worst effects of the financial crisis and recession that began in 2008, and a new report from the International Energy Agency projects a similar result globally. Yet it's also the case that prosperity and concern for the environment go hand in hand, along with the capacity to afford the costs and penalties that a massive global reduction in GHGs would entail. It's no coincidence that the UN climate process and parallel US efforts lost most of their previous momentum during the Great Recession.
Although the "road map" that came out of 2007's Bali climate conference was ambitious, its timetable for developing a new set of binding emission-reduction commitments to dovetail with the end of the 2008-12 "first measurement period" of Kyoto looked achievable, allowing for some slippage. Just two years later, the delegates to Copenhagen were lucky to come away with a last-minute set of voluntary, non-binding commitments that, even if they were all implemented, would barely shift the trajectory of rising emissions. Nor did last year's meeting in Cancun restore the Bali road map.
At this point, even the less ambitious proposals on the agenda in Durban ultimately depend on developed countries that are grappling with high unemployment, crippling deficits and debt, and political turmoil underwriting large investments in the developing world. The present structure of the European Union--the primary supporter of action on climate change--is itself in jeopardy, and European economies are facing an oil price shock arguably as large as that of 2008. It's questionable that the EU can even pay for its own future emissions reductions, let alone subsidizing reductions and climate adaptation in the developing world. Meanwhile, support for Kyoto among other large emitting countries is flagging, and the US appears little closer to taking on binding emissions commitments than it was in 1997.
I don't dismiss the possibility that the Durban talks may accomplish more than just punting the ball to next year's session in Qatar. However, if they don't, then the folks that are footing the bills for this seemingly endless succession of sprawling confabs--wonderful for local chambers of commerce and tourism, but practically meaningless for tackling global emissions--should consider calling a hiatus pending the resolution of the global economic problems that will undermine any agreement they could reach in the interim. There might even be a scientific justification for that, in the form of a new, peer-reviewed paper in Science suggesting that the global climate's sensitivity to increasing concentrations of CO2 might not be as strong as previously thought. If Schmittner, et al, are correct, then we might have a bit more time before extreme climate change becomes imminent. Let's hope so, because it looks a lot more fruitful to reboot this whole effort once the global economy is back on an even keel.