Two years ago, some of the world's most important leaders gathered at what was billed as one of the most significant international environmental events of the decade – the 2009 Copenhagen United Nations Climate Change Conference.
World leaders were persuaded to travel to Denmark’s capital to share in the final negotiations and bask in the reflected glory of a new, groundbreaking, global climate change treaty.
But ‘Hopenhagen’ collapsed under the weight of unrealistic expectations, leaving many disillusioned and cynical about the ability of the UN to solve what many have regarded as the defining environmental challenge of the 21st century.
Right now, politicians, officials and civil society leaders are convened in Durban, South Africa in an attempt to progress matters. Today the UN released a report showing that temperatures this year are the 10th highest on record since 1850, with concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at new highs.
Vernon Rive, senior law lecturer at AUT, says the stakes are just as high as they were at Copenhagen, with global emissions continuing to rise. According to the report, the period between 2002 and 2011 is the warmest-ever decade, registering 0.46 degrees Celsius above the long-term average.
“In 2011, they are fuelled not so much by rampant growth in Western economies, but rather by the steady rise of countries such as China and India. But, unlike the unrestrained optimism and hype preceding Copenhagen in 2009, expectations ahead of the Durban conference are low.”
A central question hanging over the entire process, according to Rive, concerns the future of the Kyoto Protocol.
“Negotiated in 1997, it was a time when the US economy was robust, and a united Europe was determined to take a strong lead in implementing innovative measures to reduce emissions."
Fast forward 14 years from Kyoto, and the world is now a different place, economically and geopolitically.
“China has taken number one spot as the world’s largest carbon emitter. Its rate of economic growth well outstrips that of most Western economies, including the US,” says Rive.
“As the increasingly influential BASIC grouping (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) position themselves to hold developed nations’ feet to the fire on emissions reductions and financial support for developing countries on climate change issues, they also are looking to avoid being stung by growth-limiting emissions restrictions themselves.”
Many would say that their position is completely reasonable, says Rive.
“Their standards of living are still low compared to western economies with long histories of resource exploitation and associated unrestrained emissions. The argument is that they should be given a chance to catch up. But conditions are certainly ripe for a South African stand-off.”