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Clock running out on irreversible climate change - Part II

By Bo Ekman - posted Monday, 28 April 2008

To all intents and purposes, the Kyoto Protocol is dead, and unless urgent actions are taken its successor, the Copenhagen process may turn out to be dead on arrival or comatose. Kyoto never delivered reductions of CO2 emissions, but still binds 174 nations until 2012. Meanwhile, global greenhouse gas emissions have steadily increased since the reference year of 1990.

New negotiations for “Kyoto 2” must produce nothing less than the Perfect Agreement, to be followed by Perfect Implementation. The clear and present danger is that the Copenhagen process will deliver a compromise between nations that will fall far short of this ambition.

Repeatedly events have shown failure of collective governance in dealing with political adventurism sheltered by the principle of sovereignty. The war in Iraq, the occupation of the West Bank or repression in Tibet, the horrific tragedy of Darfur or painful madness of Zimbabwe, the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, not to mention the global arsenal of 27,000 nuclear warheads, show that the international vehicles of today are no stronger nor more dependable than any time in the past.


Trust levels are low within international systems; paranoia and citizen surveillance and nationalism are at a high. Thus the Copenhagen process takes place in an atmosphere of institutional distrust and competition. No nation wants to emerge as loser before their national audiences.

The loser will be nature; the biosphere with which none of us can strike a deal. Nature is represented at the negotiating table only through the analyses of the IPCC reports of 2007. No new reports are due until 2010, but science does not wait. However, while James Hansen of NASA now convincingly shows that humanity must reverse the atmospheric content of CO2 from today’s 385 parts per million (ppm) to 350 ppm - itself a Herculean task - nations and negotiators aim for targets of 450 to 500 ppm and the illusionary governance ability to limit the increase of temperature to a maximum of 2C. This will prove as unfeasible as the stamping out of humans cheating one another.

walrus on iceberg

Targets are defined according to what is judged as politically possible in the short term and economically desirable, rather than what is required to guarantee a stable ecosystem in the long-term.

Current scientific knowledge starkly presents “350 ppm” as a boundary condition in Nature that humankind should not have transgressed. It marks the point beyond which we can no longer be sure to maintain the stability and predictability of nature. This stability was the most important prerequisite for the evolution of human civilisation over the last 10,000 years. There are several more boundary conditions that we should avoid transgressing: limits to fresh water use, fishing, deforestation, toxic waste, land use and misuse of other biodiverse ecosystems such as wetlands. These limits must be defined, never to be surpassed.

Safely keeping human activity within nature’s boundary conditions does not necessarily mean limits to growth - humans have always been a flexible and creative species. But surpassing those boundaries will, with absolute certainty, result in economic and social decline.


The biosphere is a complex, adaptive system evolving to support life. Civilisation is a human-designed system whose purpose is to create secure economic, social and cultural value. This system is built upon the combination of technology, energy and ecosystem “services”, i.e., outputs of water, biomass, food, minerals and breathable air. These two systems - biosphere and civilisation - are no longer synchronised at the global scale. They are, in fact, colliding.

Humankind is overextending earth’s annual biocapacity by 125 percent. Short-term consequences will increase prices for energy, food, water and resources for the ever-growing global population. Long-term consequences could be devastating to all forms of life on the planet. This is why we can accept nothing less than the Perfect Agreement from the Copenhagen process. We can only bind our future to an agreement that secures, with prudent margins for time eternal, the intricate internal balances and interactions of nature’s systems.

queing for diesel

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online - - (c) 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

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About the Author

Bo Ekman is chairman of Tällberg Advisors and founder and chairman of the Tällberg Foundation, an organisation dedicated to sustainable globalisation and the creation of a secure relationship between man and nature.

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