Copenhagen: a non-negotiable deadline

Barack Obama and other leaders have confirmed what has been likely for some time – that there won't be a legally binding deal coming fromnext month's Copenhagen climate change summit. Instead, and as many insiders have been saying for months, the talks will need to continue into 2010, with a deal hopefully thrashed out during the course of next year. More time might help politicians come up with a workable solution, but time is not on our side.

While politics is sometimes about compromise and being flexible, unfortunately it is not possible to negotiate with nature. The longer the world delays in putting in place the aggressive emissions reductions needed to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, the more risk we are placing before our children and grandchildren. The science tells us that to have a reasonable chance of keeping global average temperature increase below 2C (compared with the pre-industrial average), humankind will need to begin a global cut in emissions within the next five years or so. That will require planning and clear strategies to change energy and land use patterns.

The reasons the world has thus far been unable to do this are familiar enough. Present patterns of economic growth rely on vast quantities of cheap fossil energy, and while countries are not prepared to look at different economic strategies, solving the global climate challenge is virtually impossible. In the west we have become accustomed to ever-increasing levels of material consumption – and developing countries wish to have that too. The result is massive and increasing pressure on natural resources, land and water. And then there is the matter of global inequality and how it will be possible to cut poverty while reducing emissions and to put in place strategies that will enable countries to adapt to what are now already inevitable climate change impacts. Who will pay for that, and how, remains unresolved.

These are really big issues, but leaders need to face them and others with a renewed sense of urgency. Perhaps a wartime analogy is apposite. At the start of the second world war, the US and Britain demonstrated a remarkable ability to rise to a grave challenge. Public support for action was galvanised, and new technologies were deployed on a vast scale in a short time. Both of these things happened, in part through clear and inspirational political leadership. And perhaps this is what the world needs now – some leaders who are prepared to speak of the threat as it really is, and to inspire societies to rise to it with an appropriate response. If we don't get that in 2009, we will certainly need it during 2010.

Each day that goes by the threat grows, each day we delay means more pain and cost in the future. We must urge countries to use the Copenhagen summit to raise humankind's collective ambition, and to see 2010 as the time when that is converted into an action plan that will work.

Originally published by The Guardian.