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CLIMATE CHANGE: Dream of a Camel, Get a Goat, and Be Happy With It

Julio Godoy

BERLIN, Jul 5 2011 (IPS) - Sometimes you have to dream of a camel to get only a goat, South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said last weekend to delegates from 35 countries gathered in Berlin to discuss ways to avoid the collapse of international climate change negotiations.

The Berlin summit, hosted by the German and the South African governments, aimed at re-starting negotiations for an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop climate change and global warming – an agreement originally expected to be signed in Durban, South Africa, in November.

But after years of negotiations, the process, coordinated by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, is deadlocked, especially due to the reluctance of the U.S. – which has the largest emissions per capita of greenhouse gases – to accept an international binding agreement.

The stalemate means that no agreement will be signed in Durban – there is not yet even a draft which could realistically be accepted by the U.S. government and by other industrialised nations. Without agreement in Durban, there will be a regulatory gap on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions beginning in January 2013.

Nkoana-Mashabane explained that the dictum of the camel and the goat is a Somali saying aimed at differentiating ideal aspirations and realistic possibilities. As in a Somali bazaar, in the negotiations towards an international binding agreement to forestall climate change, you have to aim to get a camel, but be aware that at best you will get just a goat, Nkoana-Mashabane said.

The ‘goat’ in this case would be an international agreement valid from 2013, but not ratified by the U.S. and China, and maybe other industrialised countries, like Japan and Canada. The hope would be that in time these countries would sign the agreement.

German Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen praised the participation of U.S. and Chinese high-level delegations at the Berlin meeting as a good signal.

China is the largest total emitter of greenhouse gases. Put together, the U.S. and the Chinese emissions represent more than 40 percent of global emissions.

Roettgen said that all participants had agreed that the Kyoto protocol, which regulates the reductions of emissions of industrialised countries until the end of 2012, “is not dead”.

The U.S. government did not ratify the Kyoto protocol, arguing that without the inclusion of strong emerging economies, such as China, the Kyoto reduction scheme represents a disadvantage for industrialised economies.

Roettgen claimed that “all participants [at the Berlin meeting] agree that the Kyoto protocol is a paradigm on how [global] environmental policy can be designed, with the participation of other countries”. He fears that a new international regulatory regime to reduce greenhouse gases won’t be signed in Durban. But he expressed hope that “substantial progress” would be made in establishing clear objectives in the reduction of emissions within a legally binding framework.

Roettgen also affirmed that the European Union countries were ready to ratify a new commitment to reduce their own emissions. Eventually, in a few years time, “when the [political] time is ripe, these results could be integrated in a global binding agreement,” Roettgen added.

The unofficial schedule for such a globally binding agreement depends on political developments in the U.S. and in China, According to a German source who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity. “For the time being, and until 2013, the U.S. government is incapable of action in international affairs, such as the climate change negotiations,” the source said. “President Obama won’t sign an agreement that is seen in the U.S. as disadvantageous for its economy before the elections of 2012, without risking a sound defeat.”

Similarly, it is widely expected that in China, current leaders – including President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and Chairman of the National People’s Congress Wu Bangguo – will retire in 2012.

“If Obama wins the next presidential elections, he could sign an international contract to forestall climate change sometime in 2013 or 2014. A new Chinese government could also be ready to sing such an agreement in this period,” according to the German source.

Then, so the rationale goes, other industrialised countries, such as Japan and Canada, so far reluctant to accept new reduction objectives, could follow the European lead. But for prominent environmental scientists, these are too many ‘ifs’.

Stefan Rahmstorf, a leading researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and co- author of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, warns that “if we are not able to reach the top peak of emissions within five, ten years at most, and start reducing them, then we won’t be able to limit the global warming to two Celsius degrees” compared with global average temperatures before the Industrial revolution some 200 years ago.

Rahmstorf told IPS that there is consensus among the environmental scientific community that this limit must be respected to avoid fundamental changes in climate patterns, and major weather catastrophes, such as droughts, more frequent and more intense hurricanes, and the rising of the sea levels.

To maintain global warming under the two Celsius degree limit, emissions of greenhouse gases must be reduced by half by 2050. These two intertwined objectives – already recognised in numerous international environmental agreements – are out of reach without the participation of the U.S. and China in a post-Kyoto protocol agreement.

“I like the saying of the camel and the goat,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told delegates at the Berlin meeting. “But during climate change negotiations, we should avoid repeating it too loud in public, otherwise we may even not get the goat, let alone the camel we all dream for.”

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