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The climate talks in Doha

The focus of the world leaders is about to shift, partially at least, on the climate conference in Doha, Qatar, where the parties to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are meeting.

The recent publication of a report by the World Bank, Turn Down The Heat, will surely influence in more ways than one the proceedings at the conference (COP18). The report is a technical analysis of the implications arising from a four-degree rise in global average temperature by the end of the century.

Almost simultaneously, the European Environment Agency has just published its technical report (No. 12/2012), Climate Change, Impacts And Vulnerability In Europe 2012. As comprehensive as the World Bank’s, this study depicts a grim picture of the future Europeans will have to contend with as climatic conditions across the continent and the Mediterranean region are envisaged to become more difficult in the decades that lie ahead.

A hotter, drier Mediterranean will bring about radical shifts in, say, tourism patterns across the region affecting coastal and island economies.

The debate on climate is as technical as it can be controversial.

In the climate sceptics’ view, the phenomenon remains shrouded in too much uncertainty and it remains unsound and economically irrational for policymakers to take decisions grounded upon the projection outcomes from computer model systems that unmistakably predict doom and gloom.

Palaeoclimatic data analysis, for example, reveals that climatic changes have always been the norm since primordial times and, clearly, humanity could have never influenced such processes.

There are still several unknowns about how the global carbon cycle operates and the wild fluctuations in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels throughout geological time remain difficult to explain.

To say the least, carbon emissions to the atmosphere since pre-industrial times cannot be assessed in isolation without taking stock of a much wider context than the recent 200-year span, a mere insignificant time interval in the planet’s history.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has steadily asserted itself as one of the world’s most authorative bodies, reviewing works from scientists the world over whose specific task is the analysis of climate trends and impacts from practically all angles, environmental and also socio-economic.

The 2007 IPPC fourth assessment report established human-induced climate change as “unequivocal” and that humanity is already experiencing its effects.

This has triggered policymakers to embark on climate adaptation policies, the litmus test of which will clearly always be the extent to which governments will take the initiative and implement.

The IPCC fifth assessment report is in the pipeline and it is already expected that the revised projections will portray a considerably worse future global climate situation than previously thought.

Deeper greenhouse gas emissions cuts will be required, possibly on the lines of the EU energy road map for 2050, in the hope that we can reassure ourselves that future generations inherit a safer planet.

The cost of inaction may be much higher in the longer term but adapting to unavoidable climate change still remains an expensive challenge. Climate policy needs to address the impacts from higher heat stresses, the inundation of coastal areas, especially in places of high population density, and to take adequate measures in ensuring safety and minimal damages resulting from extreme weather events whose intensity and frequency are expected to increase.

Agricultural systems and food production, not to mention the potential for spread of disease, are other pressing issues.

Vulnerable small island states like ours will always be the most at risk, especially given their fragile economies and the sensitivity of limited strategic resources.

Malta’s situation with potable freshwater is a case in point.

The indications are that it shall not be possible to meet the Copenhagen target to avoid global average temperature rise by 2°C compared to pre-industrial.

A subtle message may already be conveyed by the World Bank report itself in that a global average temperature rise of 4°C may be more in the order of things to come but the authors fail to go beyond the science and do not really offer clear tangible solutions.

How shall international climate politics evolve in Doha? Recent climate conferences have raised serious doubts about the UN’s ability to muster these events. Will the UN prove the opposite and the conference deliver?

Doha coincides with the aftermath of the US President’s re-election under the ominous heavy showers of superstorm Sandy.

Will this have any real bearing on COP18? Shall the emerging economies of China, India and Brazil re-engage fruitfully and commit unconditionally to the global climate process?

No headway on climate is possible unless the global community gets persuasive action from these.

How will the small island states fare?

But the biggest unknown about the Doha conference probably lies in the extent to which COP18 will facilitate successfully the transition into the post-Kyoto era, a process that is expected to be far from smooth.

The UN clearly faces another crucial test. Whether the conference will be a success will obviously be judged on deliverables in the hope that the environmental lobby will not end up rubbishing COP18 as not even worth the whole event’s carbon footprint.

[email protected]

Alan Pulis specialises in environmental management

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