By Marlene Moses
A curious thing has happened at the international negotiations to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions responsible for climate change: We stopped talking about reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
The matter of the emissions gap - that is, the discrepancy between pledged emissions cuts and the level of cuts scientists say are actually needed to prevent unmanageable climate impacts - has largely been avoided since countries met last year in Cancun, Mexico.
Now, as negotiators prepare for the final climate meeting of 2011 next week in Durban, South Africa, the international community still appears unable to come to terms with the magnitude of the challenge we face.
The gap is especially worrying for people in my region, where it could mean the difference between our islands adapting to severe, but manageable impacts, or being submerged by rising seas within our grandchildren’s lifetimes.
With news that carbon dioxide emissions are at the highest level in history (and increasing rapidly), the world can no longer afford to sidestep a conversation about the hard numbers, either at the climate negotiations or in public forums such as this one.
We know total annual emissions must be reduced to no more than 44 gigatonnes by 2020 and continue to fall thereafter to avoid a temperature increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius. An even steeper decline is needed to keep warming well below 1.5 degrees - the level science shows is needed to give us any realistic chance of avoiding a meter or more rise in sea level and other devastating impacts.
Last year emissions pushed 48 gigatonnes. Even if countries meet the high end of their Cancun pledges, which at the present time seems unlikely, the safe level of emissions would still be well surpassed, setting the stage for a temperature increase of 3 degrees or more and all but guaranteeing the loss of entire nations in my region.
Thus, emissions must peak and begin to decline in the next few years if we are to have a fighting chance at saving our countries. It is hard to envision a scenario where that would be possible unless the Durban outcome consists of the following elements.
First and foremost, the meeting must provide certainty that there will be a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. The protocol is the product of years of negotiations, and with 164 countries on board, it is the best available tool to ensure transparency and that countries live up to their promises.
The second commitment must include ambitious reduction targets capable of closing the emissions gap. It would be unconscionable to become complacent with the current targets, which we know are incompatible with the survival of numerous sovereign states.
There must also be a mandate for a new legally binding agreement that addresses emissions from developed nations that have not joined the Kyoto Protocol and provides a pathway for developing countries with significant emissions to begin making necessary cuts.
Additionally, the new instrument must provide poor countries with the means to implement these measures and adapt to the climate change impacts already affecting millions of people around the globe, such as floods, famines, and surging seas.
Finally, we must now operationalise the Green Climate Fund, which was agreed to in Cancun last year, and begin identifying the long-term sources of capital needed to ensure that it is more than an empty shell.
The fund is essential to supporting clean energy and adaptation projects in some of the world’s most vulnerable regions. A failure to move this forward now risks stalling the negotiations and undermining the fragile trust between parties when we know there is no time left to waste.
From the beginning, representatives of the people most vulnerable to climate change have come to the climate talks to negotiate in good faith. Many of us have designed plans to build low and zero carbon energy sources at home, even though our means are limited and our contribution to the problem is insignificant.
Like so many times before, we have come to the meeting in Durban with a practical plan to tackle the crisis we all face. But this time, with our survival hanging in the balance, we won’t accept an outcome that fails to meet these goals.
Ambassador Marlene Moses is the permanent representative to the United Nations for the Republic of Nauru and chair of Pacific Small Island Developing States, a coalition of 11 low-lying island countries at the United Nations. She will become chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in 2012.