Even if every country does what it says it will do, world temperatures will rise by 4 degrees centigrade over the next century. That’s the best-guess scientific prediction.
A temperature rise of this magnitude would force hundreds of millions of people to move or risk death, so it’s extreme in itself. (Where do these people move to without giving rise to enormous political unrest?). But it also gives rise to the prospect of run-away climate change, leading, for example, to the release of methane from frozen tundra that will accelerate the process of global warming.
All this sounds fanciful when it’s cold outside. It’s hard to appreciate that across the world 2010 will go down as one of the warmest years on record, and that average global temperatures just keep going up and up. The climate change sceptics have an easy time arguing their case to a shivering public.
So one of the most important things to have come out of the UN’s climate change conference at Cancun is a reminder that every government in the world is expressing concern about climate change and saying that we must take action to curb it. Only Bolivia registered its reluctance to support the final document – because it didn’t go far enough.
The European Union had a minimum objective for these talks, it was to keep the ball rolling. The result has exceeded its expectations by quite a margin. UK environment secretary Chris Huhne can take a share of the credit for this by hammering out an agreement on the future of the Kyoto Protocol (which places obligations on only a limited number of countries) that kept everyone on board. I didn’t have the impression that my former MEP colleague took much interest in the global warming debate when he was in the European Parliament, but he’s proved himself a quick learner and an effective practitioner.
It’s been a miserable year for all those involved in trying to persuade governments across the world to recognise the need for action. The failure at Copenhagen sucked momentum from a negotiating process that requires the consent of every nation on the planet. It strengthened the resistance of those who would argue, not unreasonably, that the EU cannot take measures of its own in isolation without the risk of losing more jobs.
But now the process has new life. The USA is still failing to provide leadership but it has joined with other developed countries in agreeing to start helping poorer countries meet the costs of climate change, and to curb the destruction of forests. Both India and China have shown a willingness to take the agenda forward, and they have agreed to international monitoring of emissions; this represents a major retreat for the notion of national sovereignty and acceptance that we are all in this together and must be able to trust one another. Who knows, maybe my meeting in China with key environmental legislators a month ago contributed a little bit to the change in mood.
The agreed target is to stop temperatures rising above 2 degrees centigrade. It’s a target that is probably already too late to achieve, and the measures announced so far are nothing like sufficient, but the agreement means that we can return to this year after year with new proposals for taking the agenda forward. We can ratchet up the requirements and obligations.
Next step for European politicians will be to consider raising our CO2 emissions reduction target for 2020 from 20% to 30%, setting an example and helping to promote low carbon investments. A month ago I would have said that prospects for securing agreement for this from EU governments were minimal. Now they are better – I go no further than that.