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Show us the way to go green

Businesses need to know what goals they will have to aim for, writes David Derbyshire.

Perched on top of a crumbling globe is a huge, leafless and apparently dead tree. It's not, it has to be said, the most uplifting logo for international talks on climate change.

Officials in South Africa — who will welcome delegates from nearly 200 countries tomorrow to the United Nations summit in Durban — say the tree is a baobab, a species famed for its resilience.

Cynics say it resembles a large piece of dead wood, a fitting symbol for talks that have become mired in distrust, bureaucracy and inaction over the past three years.

It's fair to say that expectations going into Durban couldn't be lower. Environmentalists, politicians and even the organisers concede that a global deal on new carbon dioxide targets is years away.

Some argue that the positions of America and China, the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, are so entrenched that a deal is unlikely in time to prevent a catastrophic rise of more than 2C in world average temperatures.

It is not only the green movement that finds the lack of progress frustrating. Increasingly, calls for international action on climate change are coming from business leaders.

In the past few months more than 180 companies, including Tesco, Unilever, Philips and Kingfisher, have signed a communiqué calling on governments to break the deadlock. "Businesses want a robust, effective agreement out of Durban," said Eliot Whittington, director of the Corporate Leaders' Group on Climate Change, which organised the communiqué.

"They are looking to the long term, perhaps more than the average politician who is possibly more concerned with the short-term economic situation and will be tempted to put climate change into the bin marked 'too difficult'."

The most contentious issue facing the 20,000 delegates expected in Durban is the future of the Kyoto protocol — the only legally binding global agreement on emissions.

Under the protocol, 37 of the richest countries must cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 5% from their 1990 levels by the end of 2012. Critics say the targets were too low, and the deal was meaningless because America refused to ratify it.

Despite the flaws, developing countries are clinging to Kyoto as the only legal treaty for tackling climate change. They want a "second commitment period" running from 2012. America and other developed nations, in contrast, appear keen to bury Kyoto. Instead, they want a deal that covers all countries, including China.

This gulf between the rich and poor worlds was a key reason for the failure of the Copenhagen summit in 2009 and remains the biggest obstacle to a global deal.

In the absence of a legally binding emissions target, the world has been left with a series of voluntary pledges from governments.

Jonathan Grant, climate change specialist at Price Waterhouse Coopers, the professional services firm, believes the deadlock in climate talks is hampering investment.

"One thing that has changed over the years is that increasingly you see businesses calling for climate regulation, whether they are high-carbon businesses or clean technology businesses," he said.

"Whether you are building power stations, developing electric cars or planning to build homes, the success of these investments depends on government regulation or the lack of regulation. If there is uncertainty in the regulatory outlook, this will limit low-carbon investments, and delay investment more broadly."

Grant said that a legally binding international target was not essential for investors. Voluntary pledges under a UN framework, with proper monitoring, and verification, would provide enough certainty.

His view is similar to that of Sir David King, former government chief scientific adviser and climate-change policy guru. Now director of Oxford's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, he caused ripples this summer by calling for the world to abandon thoughts of a new Kyoto-style deal. Instead he wants a piecemeal system, where each country acts to curb emissions without international targets.

"What we are looking for out of Durban isn't progress on Kyoto — Kyoto is a dead duck," King said.

There are plenty of signs of governments and companies pressing on with plans to slash carbon emissions without a global deal, he said.

Australia, for example, is planning to introduce a cap and trade system for emissions trading. Canada and Mexico are discussing something similar for North America. China has announced carbon targets for the first time, while firms such as Unilever are leading the way in private sector emission cuts.

"What these companies want is clarity over the longer term," said King. "The private sector wants to make sure that, as it begins to invest heavily in new green technologies, the investment isn't suddenly left high and dry by a big change in government policy."

If Kyoto part two is unlikely to be a success, hopes are higher for progress on the new $100 billion (£64 billion) a year green climate fund. That, too, is in danger, however, with the US rumoured to be refusing to sign off on it. The fund is designed to help poor nations adapt to the effects of climate change and invest in lowcarbon technology.

There is also likely to be progress on deforestation, which accounts for a fifth of all carbon emissions.

Ruth Davis, chief policy adviser at Greenpeace UK, said that talk of Kyoto's death was premature. "It is almost impossible to conceive of a bottom-up approach to tackling climate change that could deliver the scale and pace of change we need to avoid disaster," she said.

"Finding a binding global solution is proving tough — but throwing away the rulebook and hoping that something will turn up is not a mature response to a growing crisis.

"Working diligently to achieve a deal through the UN is — and it simply remains the only game in town."

Copyright David Derbyshire 2011