A modest step in Durban leaves much hard work

The new Durban accord to fight climate change offers very little solid progress, but it may well be the best deal that was possible. The struggle continues.

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The UN's climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, seemed doomed to deadlock but ended with a surprise agreement. Delegates were ecstatic. "A huge step forward," said Chris Huhne, a British minister. "We have saved planet Earth," said Mate Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa's foreign minister. After their marathon talks, we respectfully suggest that these people need a good night's sleep before declaring such a sweeping victory.

True, any agreement is an accomplishment when 190 states are involved. This Durban Platform for Enhanced Action may well be the best deal possible. But it's no breakthrough against climate change.

Delegates agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol, which has failed to reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions since it took effect in 2005. (Kyoto has, in fairness, helped to boost clean-energy research around the world, and its continuance is crucial to the UAE's Masdar Initiative.)

The Durban delegates also agreed to develop by 2015 a way to get all countries to accept a deal that would bind them to emissions cuts by 2020. The final Durban Platform text is not yet available but there is so far no hint of how this would happen. As with Kyoto, a pact without the biggest polluters would accomplish little. And even if every country were to buy in, monitoring and verification remain merely vague ideals.

The other main element of the agreement is somewhat more practicable: $100 billion (Dh367 billion) a year to mitigate climate change's effects on poor countries. True, of the $30 billion promised in 2009, only 85 per cent has been delivered, and recipient countries are grumbling about the strings attached to it. But on climate change, mere money is easy to find compared with political will.

None of this means that the world should just give up. The real impetus for decisive country-by-country action against climate change will come, slowly but inexorably, not from conferences but from national populations, as climate change wreaks economic and social havoc.

Even then, however, the task will be daunting: every country, company and person on earth emits greenhouse gases, and control policies are bound to be inefficient, subject to political abuse and extremely difficult to verify and enforce. The climate-change fight, then, is an unprecedented test of humanity's ability to cooperate.

It is clear that we need to try. But the Durban accord is a sobering measure of how slowly we are progressing against this dangerous enemy.