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Managing carbon: a global task that won't go away

The division between the rich world and the poor one over climate change is growing more intractable with each year that passes

BACK in the heady days of 2007, climate change seemed the only issue that troubled people, and especially media, in the West. The recession changed that. For many industrialised nations, economic weakness even brought their emissions down sufficiently to fall within their Kyoto targets, although the rise of India and China – now the world's biggest emitter by total volume – has kept global pollution steady.

Later this month officials from the UN, diplomats, politicians, activists, journalists, and a cloud of other hangers-on and summit-junkies, will gather in Cancun, Mexico, for COP-16, the latest of the UN Climate Change Conference. The goal is a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in 1997, but expires in 2012.

This meeting will be a boon for Mexico's tourist industry and for long-haul airlines. But the chances of Cancun achieving anything more than last year's meeting in Copenhagen, roundly considered a failure, are miniscule. Accords made in international summits don't emerge in the hothouse itself, but are prepared in advance by mini-summits where the sherpas of each country do their horse-trading and conniving, ideally leaving just small gaps for their less-expert political leaders to fill in. Yet these preliminary meetings in the past year have also failed.

The division between the rich world and the poor one over climate change is growing more intractable with each year that passes. Their argument isn't about whether climate change is a threat, or whether the world should curb its emissions of greenhouse gasses. Pockets of scepticism exist (and receive disproportionate space in media), but on the policy level you would struggle to find a government that thinks such pollution should continue to rise unfettered.

It is an argument about priorities. For many poor nations, development is an existential goal. Yet the green and consequence-free technologies and fuels that would deliver such an ambition have yet to gain the necessary global scale. The green promises of politicians in the West, meanwhile, have faded during the battle to restore economic growth.

The accord signed last year in Copenhagen called for global temperature rises to be limited to 2°C. Beyond other promises of financing to support green-energy projects in the developing world, Copenhagen failed to deliver anything more concrete, such as a commitment to halve overall emissions by 2050, as the EU had sought.

But all is not lost. As Petroleum Economist's special report this month shows, even without the kind of binding global agreement the UN would like, some progress is being made. China, for years the bugbear of environmentalists for its coal addiction, is taking leadership in the developing world over pollution (see p23). Stories of it building a coal-fired power plant every week are now being replaced with tales of its emergence as a renewable-energy superpower.

Carbon-capture and storage, long the preserve of pilot projects, is also inching closer to the kind of scale it will need to make a difference (see p19). From the US southwest to the new supercritical coal plants of Europe, to Abu Dhabi's desert, investors, spying the next big thing, are defying the economic gloom and are putting cash into green projects. Legislation, especially in countries such as the US, is severely deficient. And the carbon markets have yet to work as their proponents said they would (see p25). But despite this, money is flowing into green energy (see p22).

A matter of life or death

It needs to. Although demand for oil and other fossil fuels may now be in terminal decline in the rich countries of the West, it is a different story elsewhere. India, the nations of the Middle East and other developing countries will help take total oil consumption by 2030 to 105m barrels a day – at least – says the International Energy Agency. This isn't greed: for the quarter of the world's population that lacks basic access to adequate energy supply it is often a matter of life or death (see p17). The recession may have brought a lull to the war on emission. But managing carbon is a global task that won't go away.

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