Another year of small steps, with the promise of true sustainability still distant. But frustration with the slow pace of change is growing

International talks on the future habitability of the planet have become mundane. Since the failure in Copenhagen in 2009 to agree a new deal to curb global warming, annual UN climate summits have struggled even to get meaningful mass-media attention, despite the fundamental importance of the issue for future economic wellbeing.

The 2013 Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP19) continued the low-key pattern. However, the event, held in Warsaw, Poland, November 11-22, was marked by two incidents that seemed to summarise feelings about the way discussions are going.

First, the lead negotiator from the Philippines, Naderev Saño, made an emotional call for action in the light of his country’s – and his family’s – experience of Typhoon Haiyan, which swept across the Philippines shortly before COP19, killing more than 5,000 people. Haiyan was a sign of things to come, Saño said, and the world should “stop this madness” of rising emissions. Saño caught the media’s attention by going on a symbolic hunger strike for the duration of the conference.

Then, on the conference’s penultimate day, civil society and trade union representatives decided they had had enough and walked out. Their main complaint was the bogged-down...

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