Groundbreaking climate deal agreed in Durban

As the world’s climate keeps changing, and with millions of livelihoods under threat, UN climate talks in South Africa have made a small but important step forward. Is hope now on the horizon?

‘We have made history.’ So concluded the president of the Durban Climate Change summit, where a groundbreaking international agreement has been reached.

Scientists have warned that, unless the world’s leaders act quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we will soon be under serious threat from global warming. In response, governments have agreed that all countries will be bound by law to play their part in the fight against man-made climate change.

The success of the talks has caused excitement – and surprise. Why? Because all previous attempts to come to such an agreement have failed. High-profile meetings held in Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010 did not end well, with fierce arguments breaking out between scientists and government ministers.

And even when worldwide agreements have been reached, countries have subsequently opted out. In March 2001, President George Bush withdrew the United States from a treaty called the Kyoto Protocol, which was meant to reduce emissions over a period of twenty years.

During this year’s talks, poorer countries such as India and China have argued that richer countries such as the US and the UK should bear a greater part of the responsibility for looking after the planet.

With scientists warning that the consequences of further disagreement would be disastrous, government representatives eventually settled their differences. Key decisions were still being taken during the final ten minutes of the summit, as negotiators pressed for a solution.

But will it work? Emissions have risen by nearly 50% in the last twenty years; those in Durban will be hoping they have done enough to prevent such a rise happening again.

Too little too late?

Does the Durban agreement go far enough? Opinion is fiercely divided. Activists and campaigners argue that this is a hollow victory: perhaps it was a diplomatic success, but climate change projects are being neglected, and it is time the big players backed up their talk with real action.

Others are more optimistic, arguing that this is at least a start. Lord Stern, former head of the World Bank, said, 'The outcome of the summit is a modest but significant step forward'. Many are wary of over-estimating the importance of the deal, given how fragile such deals have been in the past, but it remains the case that this is the first time governments have committed themselves to a solution enshrined in law, and that is certainly significant.

You Decide

  1. Fighting climate change costs effort and money. It means going without things like cheap flights, constant energy consumption and petrol-guzzling cars. What sacrifices, if any, would you be willing to make to prevent climate change?
  2. Should rich and poor countries bear the same amount of responsibility when it comes to reducing emissions?

Activities

  1. Climate change will affect different parts of the world in different ways. Do some further research and create a world map showing some of the most important changes to come.
  2. Divide into groups of six, with each person representing one of the world’s top CO2 emitters, as shown in today’s illustration. Each person should draw up a list of their priorities for climate change negotiations. Compare notes. What do you think the big obstacles would be to finding a deal?

Some People Say...

“It is already too late to save the climate.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So is that the end of climate change?
No. This is an important moment, but results are what matter, and unless we see some serious measures put in place, the threat posed by global warming will only increase. To avoid a disastrous two degree rise in temperatures, CO2 emissions will have to be in reverse by 2020 at the latest.
Why do activists think the summit has ignored the lives of ordinary people? Surely such a big decision will affect everyone?
In the end, this summit could improve life for everyone – but perhaps not soon enough. Climate change activists draw attention to the fact that, while ministers and officials celebrate an agreement that may improve things in the future, there are people in the world who are suffering now as a result of changes in the climate.

Word Watch

Durban
The third largest city in South Africa.
Greenhouse gasses
Gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane which trap heat from the sun within the earth’s atmosphere. They are released into the air when fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil – which are the source of most of the world’s energy – are burnt.
Kyoto Protocol
an agreement reached in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, in which governments pledged to reduce emissions by over five percent, based on the levels of emissions in 1990. The agreement is due to expire in 2012, and, though successful in part, has suffered from the lack of participation of the US. It is hoped that the Durban agreement will exceed the achievements of the Kyoto Protocol.

Subjects

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