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Montreal crossroads

Every week, more research appears that details the rapid and huge impacts of a warming climate on arctic ecosystems.

The world’s polar bear scientists recently concluded that the conservation status of the polar bear should be upgraded, from Least Concern to Vulnerable. The conclusion is based on what they believe will be a 30 percent decline in the world’s polar bear population over the next 35 to 50 years. The main cause of this decline is climatic warming and the resulting disappearance of sea ice, home to and key habitat for polar bears (see page 4 this issue).

Another report, which received widespread international media coverage, came from the National Snow and Ice Data Center and NASA.

For the fourth consecutive year, US scientists using satellite data have tracked a stunning reduction in arctic sea ice at the end of the northern summer. This year has seen the lowest extent so far recorded, and the persistence of near-record low extents leads the group to conclude that Arctic sea ice is on an accelerating, long-term decline. They conclude that if the current rates of loss of sea ice continue, the summertime Arctic could be completely ice-free well before the end of this century. This goes well beyond the conclusions of the 250 scientists behind the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), which caused a sensation when it was released in November last year.

People living in the Arctic, though, don’t need reports to confirm what they’re seeing with their own eyes. As we go to press, indigenous peoples from around the Arctic have just met in Alaska to share their observations of climate change. They see that their world is changing fast, so fast that it threatens traditional ways of life and cultures.

But wait a moment: we can all relax now, can’t we? The Kyoto Protocol is in force, and emissions of greenhouse gases are going to go down.

Wrong. The Kyoto Protocol may have been in force since February, but it is due to expire in 2012. And greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise: most industrialized countries are still far above their Kyoto reduction targets.

This makes the 11th Conference of the Parties on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 11), set to take place in Montreal, Canada at the end of November, crucial. This is the place where countries must decide how to deal with the threat of global warming and greenhouse gas emissions after 2012.

WWF, along with other environmental NGOs, will be pushing for the start of an international process that will lead to greater cuts in greenhouse gas emissions after 2012.We want an agreement in place no later than 2008.With major differences of opinions about the right approach between the US, Europe and developing countries, and with a total of 190 countries involved, reaching an agreement will be challenging. It’s vital to start now.

WWF thinks that Parties, to claim success in Montreal, need to leave with a clear and agreed plan for negotiating the next phase of the Kyoto Protocol after 2012: a plan that includes the formal start of negotiations, the end date, the Kyoto Protocol as the legal base, and the issues to be covered in the negotiations.

Securing a future for Kyoto after 2012 is vital for businesses too.Many of the solutions enabling countries to meet their commitments under Kyoto are market-based; emissions trading, for example.Many large businesses have already begun work on emissions- trading strategies, as have financial companies and strategy consultants. For this work to bear fruit, these companies need long-term security. They need to know what’s happening after 2012.Montreal can help build that security.

There is no time to lose. The window of opportunity to keep global warming below dangerous levels is small. Unfortunately it’s even smaller in the Arctic, and it’s closing fast.

Samatha Smith
WWF International Arctic Programme