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What Happened in Durban?

by Kaitlin Alexander | University in Canada

F Posted in: News and Politics, Voices P Posted on: December 16, 2011
6459462469_3e03ee5d82 Kaitlin Alexander

Following the COP17 talks in Durban, South Africa – the latest attempt to create a global deal to cut carbon emissions and solve global warming – world leaders claimed they had “made history,” calling the conference “a great success” that had “all the elements we were looking for.”

So what agreement did they all come to that has them so proud? They agreed to figure out a deal by 2015. As James Hrynyshyn writes, it is “a roadmap to a unknown strategy that may or may not produce a plan that might combat climate change”.

Did I miss a meeting? Weren’t we supposed to figure out a deal by 2010, so it could come into force when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012? This unidentified future deal, if it even comes to pass, will not come into force until 2020 – that’s eight years of unchecked global carbon emissions.

At COP15 in Copenhagen, countries agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The German Advisory Council on Global Change crunched the numbers¬†and discovered that the sooner we start reducing emissions, the easier it will be to attain this goal. This graph shows that if emissions peak in 2011, we have a “bunny slope” to ride, whereas if emissions peak in 2020 we have a “triple black diamond” that’s almost impossible economically. (Thanks to Richard Sommerville for this analogy).

If we stay on the path that leaders agreed on in Durban, emissions will peak long after 2020 – in the best case scenario, they will only start slowing in 2020. If the triple black diamond looks steep, imagine a graph where emissions peak in 2030 or 2040 – it’s basically impossible to achieve our goal, no matter how high we tax carbon or how many wind turbines we build.

World leaders have committed our generation to a future where global warming spins out of our control. What is there to celebrate about that?

However, we shouldn’t throw our hands in the air and give up. 2 degrees is bad, but 4 degrees is worse, and 6 degrees is awful. There is never a point at which action is pointless, because the problem can always get worse if we ignore it.

Kaitlin Alexander Kaitlin Alexander Kaitlin Alexander is a B.Sc. student and aspiring climatologist from Canada. She serves as NextGen Journal's Climate Correspondent and blogs at http://climatesight.org.

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