The UN agreement, signed in 1997, was designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions of developed countries to 5% less than 1990 levels by the end of 2012 and to spur investment in low-carbon development in developing economies. But the gathering nations in Doha are nowhere near these outcomes.
Having set out to resolve the impending end of the Kyoto protocol in Durban in December 2011, they instead kicked the can down the road to 2020, with lots of work to do before 2015 in order to define successor agreement to Kyoto. Some of that work is in progress in Doha, when 195 country negotiators gather to finalise the extension of the protocol.
These issues need to be negotiated under circumstances very different to those when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change began its work in 1994. Back then, it was the world of common but differentiated responsibilities as wealthy most developed economies sought to engage the developed economies in a global solution.
Now the world's most developed economies, specially the US and the EU- are fighting the impacts of recession, high rates of unemployment and colossal fiscal deficits. Developing economies, including China, India, Brazil, Nigeria and South Africa, have their problems, but rapid growth in both population and consumption is not one of them.
It remains a mantra for saving the climate that the earth's temperature curve cannot be allowed to climb any further than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Climatologists have calculated how much carbon dioxide emissions from cars, chimneys and fields can increase without jeopardizing the 2-degree target. If we fail in this mission, at least according to their computer models, life on the planet will become intolerable.
But a look at their calculations reveals that limiting the earth's warming to 2 degrees Celsius is no longer realistic. Our thirst for energy is too enormous and our efforts to wean ourselves off fossil fuels have been too insignificant.
Instead of declining, emissions continue to rise year after year. If nothing changes, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) predicted last week, global carbon emissions will increase to about 58 gigatons by 2020 -- much more than the 44 gigatons necessary to adhere to the 2-degree target.
According to the 2011 World Energy Outlook published by the International Energy Agency (IEA), global fossil fuel subsidies jumped 30 percent to $523 billion (€403 billion) last year. Although countries are spending more and more on renewable energy, subsidies for coal, oil and gas are still six times as high.
In times of crisis, burning fossil fuels helps industry, while the climate must wait. According to a study by the research institute Oxford Economics, almost all key producers of greenhouse gas are spending decreasing amounts on saving the planet. Crisis-ridden Spain plans to cut €3.8 billion ($4.9 billion) from its climate protection budget by 2015, Great Britain will reduce spending by €3.1 billion, and Germany is cutting climate-related spending by €1.5 billion. When ranked by how much it spends on climate protection as a percentage of total spending, the United States comes in last.
But hardly anyone is about to admit it. Climate activists won't admit it, because they're afraid that without strict targets, no government can be compelled to reduce emissions. And neither will politicians, because they're the ones who injected the 2-degree target into the global debate in the first place.
Although physically speaking it is still possible to reach the 2-degree target, it seems that it's hardly feasible politically, it's more realistic to limit global warming to 3 degrees Celsius. Even that, of course, would be associated with massive efforts worldwide. That would require a carbon-free global economy, in which no more oil or gas is burned anywhere on the planet, and in which all cars operate without fossil fuel and aircraft fly without kerosene.
China, for example, is responsible for 29 percent of worldwide, energy-related CO2 emissions, and it's also the world's biggest air polluter. But the leadership in Beijing doesn't like this superlative, preferring to cite a different number, which shows that per capita, the 1.4 billion Chinese are responsible for only a fraction of what Americans and most Europeans emit.
Whatever a climate compromise looks like in the end, it will have to be characterized by "fairness, common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities," said Xie Zhenhua, the head of Beijing's delegation, when he presented his strategy for the Doha climate conference last Wednesday.
What he meant was that emissions reductions are ok, but everyone else should start first.
The Indians hold the same view. Although their delegation fundamentally voted for a reduction in greenhouse gases at the UN Climate Change Conference in Durban last year, India has a price for that, which it will also present to the European Union in Doha: financial assistance and the transfer of environmental technology.
For many years, at least the citizens of the EU could feel good about playing in the league of climate rescuers. At a number of UN conferences, the EU pushed forward with ambitious goals.
Of course, little of that is in evidence in Doha. Originally, the EU had planned to commit itself to considerably tougher reduction targets for greenhouse gas. But Poland, a significant coal producer, was the first to thwart the plan. European Commissioner Hedegaard now admits that it is no longer feasible in the short term.
By Guylain Gustave Moke