[Letters] Silent momentum on climate change

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[Letters] Silent momentum on climate change

The last two years have been a roller coaster ride in respect to securing a new global treaty to combat climate change. Some even despair that the window for action is closing fast. But giving up is not an option. The latest round of climate negotiations, held last month in Cancun, Mexico, put the world’s efforts on climate change back on track - albeit at a pace and on a scale that will undoubtedly leave many onlookers frustrated.

While the official summit in Cancun struggled to a conclusion, an unofficial one being held a few minutes away also concluded. This parallel summit brought together progressive heads of state, regional and local government, business and civil society, and underscored just how far and how fast some sectors of society will make the transition to a low-carbon future and build the green and clean-tech economies of the 21st century.

Mexico is not alone in adopting a national strategy to transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy. Uruguay, for example, announced a strategy to generate half its electricity from renewable sources by 2015. Sixty regional and local governments, responsible for 15 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, are also taking action. Big companies, from banks to airlines, are contributing as well. The U.S. retailer Wal-Mart, for example, plans to cut emissions equivalent to 3.8 million cars, in part by implementing energy-efficiency measures at its Chinese stores.

Indeed, the world is witnessing an extraordinary mobilization of national-level projects and policies that are shifting economies onto a low-carbon path. In Kenya, a new feed-in tariff is triggering an expansion of wind and geothermal power. Indonesia is not only addressing deforestation, but will begin phasing out fossil-fuel subsidies for private cars next month. Many countries and companies are forging ahead, signaling a determination not to be held hostage by the slowest at the official negotiating table.

All this may lead some to wonder why time-consuming international negotiations and UN climate summits are needed at all. But the fact is that this groundswell has in large part been catalyzed by the existing targets, timetables and innovative mechanisms of the UN climate treaties, and not least by the momentum generated around the often-criticized 2009 Copenhagen summit.

This momentum would continue to grow with a new global treaty that not only brings certainty to carbon markets and triggers accelerated investments in clean-tech industries, but that also ensures that more vulnerable countries are not marginalized. The challenge today is to unite these goals in a mutually reinforcing way.

Only then will the world have a fighting chance to keep the global temperature rise this century under two degrees, build resilience against a changed climate and truly transform the energy structures of the past ? and thus the development prospects for six billion people in the future.

Achim Steiner,

UN under secretary general and executive director of the UN Environment Program
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