Despite mounting alarm about climate change, almost 200 nations meeting in Doha from Monday are likely to pay little more than lip service to the need to rein in rising greenhouse gas emissions. A likely failure to agree a meaningful extension of the UN's Kyoto Protocol, a legally binding plan for cutting emissions by developed nations, would also undercut work on a new deal meant to unite rich and poor in fighting global warming from 2020.
"The situation is very urgent ... We can no longer say that climate change is tomorrow's problem," Andrew Steer, president of the Washington-based World Resources Institute think-tank, said of the November 26-December 7 talks in Qatar.
Superstorm Sandy had been a wake-up call for many Americans as the sort of extreme event predicted by climate scientists in a warming world, he said, even though individual weather events cannot be blamed on man-made global warming. A UN study last week said the world was on target for a rise in temperatures of between 3 and 5 degrees Celsius (5.4 to 9F) because of increasing emissions.
That would cause more floods, droughts, heatwaves and rising sea levels. A UN conference two years ago agreed to limit any rise in temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6F) above pre-industrial times. But greenhouse gas levels hit a new record in 2011, despite the world economic slowdown. And countries are showing little sign of raising ambition.
"A faster response to climate change is necessary and possible," Christiana Figueres, head of the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat, said in a statement outlining hopes for the talks. "The climate talks so far have not produced anything like the results that the science tells us that we need," said Samantha Smith, leader of global climate and energy work at the WWF conservation group.
Delegates will meet in a cavernous conference centre in Qatar - the first OPEC state to host the annual talks and the nation with the world's highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions, roughly three times those of the average American.
To keep up climate action, most countries favour extending the 1997 Kyoto pact, which binds developed nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions by an average 5.2% below 1990 levels between the years 2008 and 2012. But Russia, Japan and Canada have pulled out in recent years, meaning that Kyoto backers are down to a core led by the European Union and Australia that account for about 14% of world emissions.
The defectors say it is meaningless to extend cuts under Kyoto when big emerging countries, led by China, India, Brazil and South Africa, have no curbs on rising emissions. The United States never ratified Kyoto, for similar reasons. Developing countries and Kyoto backers say it is vital that developed nations lead the way towards the new worldwide accord meant to be negotiated by the end of 2015 and to start up in 2020.
Failure to extend Kyoto would leave only national actions, with no legally binding U.N. framework. "The Kyoto Protocol is going to be very important for us," said Seyni Nafo, spokesman of the African group of nations. "And ambition is very low." The EU and others agreed at last year's talks in Durban to extend Kyoto for a new period but details remain to be agreed, such as whether it should last five or eight years.
The EU said it would not deepen its own goal at Doha, of a 20% cut in emissions below 1990 levels by 2020, to an alternative of a 30% cut if other rich nations also act. "We will ... keep the door open to go further, to 30 percent, even if that is not going to happen this year," said EU Artur Runge-Metzger of the EU Commission.
A study by the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development said on Monday that rich nations had fallen short on promises to give poor countries $30 billion in new aid to help them combat climate change from 2010 to 2012. It said commitments so far totalled just $23.6 billion, and most was in loans that would have to be repaid by the poor.
Another study by international aid agency Oxfam also estimated that only 33% of the "fast-start finance" promised at a Copenhagen summit in 2009 could be considered new. Rich nations have also promised aid totalling $100 billion a year by 2020, but did not make any clear pledges for 2013-2019.
(Reporting by Alister Doyle; Editing by Myra MacDonald)