Maldives, an archipelago off the southeastern coast of India, told the climate change conference in Poznan, Poland, that even a 2°C rise in temperature would take the world into the "danger zone" of irreversible climate change.
The world's 50 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) - some of which are among the most vulnerable to climate change - urged a limit of 1.5°C temperature rise and greenhouse gas concentrations of no more than 350 parts per million (ppm), as well as 40 percent emission reductions by developed countries by 2020 compared to 1990 levels.
New studies, including by eminent scientists like James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, are warning that even the 2-degree threshold may not be safe enough to avoid "global disaster".
But was anyone listening? There was less talk of greenhouse gas emission cuts than before, and hardly any of money to help poor countries adapt to the impact of global warming, leaving most feeling "bitter" and "sour" when the two-week conference ended on 13 December.
"It was really a missed opportunity," remarked Antonio Hill, senior policy advisor at Oxfam, the UK-based development agency. "There is going to be a huge amount of work that needs to be done next year."
"Irresponsible" was how Marthinus van Schalkwyk, South Africa's Minister of Environmental affairs and Tourism, described the rich countries. "Rather than coming forward with clear numbers and adopting a range for mid-term emission reduction targets in a timely manner, as previously agreed, some developed countries are still playing hide-and-seek with the climate."
Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which hosted the conference, told reporters that the talks had "caused some bitterness", but noted that "from now on, it's for real."
According to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a Canadian policy research organisation, the "rapidly worsening global financial situation" might have engendered a lack of enthusiasm among the rich countries.
"Many [delegates] were concerned about climate policy falling victim to the [financial] crisis, and even the most optimistic were expecting the crisis to have some impact on the process."
Some conference participants "felt that uncertainty about the US position in 2009 [with Barack Obama as president] caused other countries to refrain from making significant political advances in Poznan, and few expect developing countries to make significant moves before developed countries have clarified their positions on emission reductions and financing," the bulletin commented.
Understandably, some participants left Poznan somewhat worried, feeling that while scientific evidence on climate change is strengthening, the "spirit of Bali" [where the last major climate change conference was held in 2007] is weakening
So why is everyone unhappy?
The world has until December 2009, when the next climate change summit will be held in Copenhagen, Denmark, and a new agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions, to become effective after 2012, is expected to be approved. The Poznan conference was a half-way mark to the Copenhagen Summit.
A new agreement is needed because the first commitment phase of the Kyoto Protocol - made by developed countries in 1997 to cut their discharge of harmful greenhouse gas emissions, and help poor countries cut theirs - ends in 2012. Scientists and environmentalists say time is running out.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific intergovernmental body set up by the World Meteorological Organisation and the UN Environment Programme, has suggested greenhouse gas emission cuts of between 25 percent and 40 percent by 2020 to avoid a 2°Celsius increase in global temperature.
An increase of this magnitude is expected to destroy 30 percent to 40 percent of all known species, generate bigger, fiercer and more frequent heat waves and droughts, and more intense weather events like floods and cyclones.
In papers published in 2008, Hansen said that if atmospheric CO2 concentrations were not kept below at least 350ppm the results could be disastrous. The current level of atmospheric CO2 is 385ppm, and could exceed 450ppm, which the world is heading for "within decades, barring prompt policy changes".
"Business-as-usual will almost certainly cause a sea level rise of at least one to two metres by the end of the century, and quite likely five metres or more, as West Antarctica is very vulnerable," Hansen told IRIN. The European Union has set a target of 550ppm.
The Earth Negotiations Bulletin commented: "Understandably, some participants left Poznan somewhat worried, feeling that while scientific evidence on climate change is strengthening, the "spirit of Bali" [where the last major climate change conference was held in 2007] is weakening, along with the determination to fight climate change, in light of the serious economic crisis.
Adaptation Fund up but no money
As a success story from Poznan, De Boer noted that the Adaptation Fund had become operational and would be able to disburse money to countries affected by climate change from 2009. The Fund is expected to raise money from a levy of about two percent on credits generated by the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), set up under the Kyoto Protocol.
The mechanism allows industrialised countries to earn trade emissions credits by implementing projects in either developed countries or developing ones, and put the credits towards meeting their greenhouse gas emission targets.
NGOs and developing countries noted that there was hardly any money to be disbursed. "There cannot be a new global climate deal without billions of dollars to pay for it all," said Ilana Solomon from ActionAid US. "Rich countries have turned up here with their wallets empty and their purses bare."
Van Schalkwyk noted that at Bali in 2007, "we agreed to conclude negotiations on extending the so-called share of proceeds levy on the CDM to other flexible mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol. This would have mobilised significant additional funding for adaptation in vulnerable developing countries.
"Unfortunately our negotiating partners arrived here unwilling to negotiate on this critical issue, leaving us developing countries with a sense of disillusionment. This situation does not bode well for trust-building as we enter the next phase of negotiations.
"The implication is that, though the Adaptation Fund has been fully operationalised, it is virtually empty – the funding from developing countries themselves is simply not enough, given the size of the need."
In August 2008, the developing countries put forward fresh proposals for greater sharing of clean technology, but there was no "constructive response from the developed countries", noted Oxfam's Hill.
"We came to Poznan well prepared with constructive and substantive proposals, ready for serious negotiations," said Van Schalkwyk. "Many of our negotiating partners from the developed world appear to have arrived in Poznan inadequately prepared and unwilling to engage in real negotiations on the important issues."
The Earth Negotiations Bulletin noted optimistically: "Some veterans who are more used to the ups-and-downs of international negotiating processes also suggested that Poznan's modest outcome could be a positive thing in the larger scheme of things.
"In the words of one observer, 'delegates needed to be reminded that success is not inevitable, and that without strong political will it is quite possible that they will fail to make the historic breakthrough needed in Copenhagen.'"
The work programme of the conference calls for proposals in February and a negotiating document by June; heads of state will meet in September at the opening of the UN General Assembly.
"The role of the UN Secretary-General will be crucial, working with heads of state who are committed to an ambitious agreement, including vulnerable countries," said Oxfam's Hill.
"If there is not significant convergence in positions by March, there will need to be a Conference of the Parties [to the UNFCCC] around mid-year, in order to finally ... [bring countries on board]"
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises.