PARIS: A new round of UN climate talks opens in South Africa next Monday; testing global resolve to tackle what scientists warn is a time bomb with an ever-shorter fuse.
Even as the latest research paints a future of climate-inflicted chaos and misery, the quest for a political solution remains elusive.
Analysts say the UN process is still traumatised by the near-collapse of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit and, in Durban, faces a bust-up over the Kyoto Protocol, the only agreement setting legal curbs on greenhouse gases.
Brandished by its defenders as a model of climate cooperation between rich and poor, Kyoto's first roster of pledges expires at the end of 2012.
But the treaty has been gravely weakened by the absence of the United States and the lack of binding constraints over emerging giants such as China and India.
The stage is set for a “very complicated dance” determining whether Kyoto has a future, said Alden Meyer, a climate negotiations veteran from the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists.
“The worst-case scenario leads to gridlock and the collapse of the whole process,” he said.
Canada, Japan and Russia have already refused to sign on for a second commitment period, objecting to the lack of legal constraints on the world's biggest carbon polluters.
Europe says it can accept a continuation, provided China and the United States show they are serious about major cuts in the coming years.
Dispatching Kyoto into limbo would be politically devastating.
Next June, world leaders gather for the 20th anniversary of the Rio Summit where the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was born.
“Durban is the last real opportunity for countries to provide certainty on a future climate regime,” says the green group WWF.
“The world's citizens are waiting for a clear signal about what countries will do in a second commitment period that will help save the planet and its people.”
“Although the protocol remains an important emblem of multilateralism, it has become, in reality, more of an impediment than a means to genuine progress,” Elliot Diringer of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a US thinktank, wrote in the journal Nature last week. But such big-horizon rhetoric contrasts sharply with the low-key pragmatism that marks the climate process these days, a mood sharpened by financial crisis and austerity.
The new matrix is the Copenhagen Accord, which set down a target of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), formally adopted by the UN body at last year's talks in Cancun, Mexico.
But no deadline or tools have been set for achieving this goal beyond a voluntary roster of emission curbs.
“If we move to a 4 C world, the 2003 (European) summer, where we had this extraordinary heat wave in August, is an average summer in the 2040s and one of the cooler ones in the 2060s.”
There were some 70,000 excess deaths across the continent that summer.
Deeply concerned by the widening “gigatonne gap,” Europe wants Durban to set a roadmap towards a global pact by 2015, an idea shared by Australia, Norway and vulnerable small-island states.
But notions of where the roadmap would lead, and how long it might take to get there, vary.
The 12-day Durban talks start at the level of senior officials and end with environment ministers.
Presidents and prime ministers will be in short supply.
In addition to the haggle over carbon mitigation, the meeting is tasked with advancing a proposed Climate Green Fund, sketched in Copenhagen and launched in Cancun.
The goal is to ramp up provisions to at least 100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to help poor countries fight climate change and adapt to worsening floods, droughts and storms.
But talks on the Fund's design have hit a roadblock, with objections raised by the United States and Saudi Arabia.
The Fund remains “an empty shell,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon complained last Monday in a speech in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka.
Meanwhile, the news from climate science is relentlessly bad.
On November 4, the US Department of Energy reported that 2010 saw the biggest-ever increase in global warming emissions – a nearly six-per cent year-on-year rise from 8.6 billion tonnes to 9.1 billion tonnes, as countries turned to cheap and plentiful coal to meet energy needs.
“Science tells us that we are driving in a fog headed toward a cliff but are unsure just how far away it is,” said US scientist Scott Mandia.