The climate countdown

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The climate countdown

It seems to have become a ritual for United Nations climate negotiations to reach the brink of collapse before an intense, contentious compromise is achieved after the deadline.

But the torturous conclusion to this year’s talks in Doha - in which nearly 200 countries agreed to extend the Kyoto protocol - has merely set the stage for more dramatic negotiations in 2015, when a new comprehensive agreement must be reached.

The just-concluded deal establishes a bridge between the old climate regime and a new, as-yet-undefined one. By extending the Kyoto Protocol - which limits some developed countries’ greenhouse-gas emissions - for another eight years, the Doha agreement preserves the vital framework of international law and retains hard-won accounting rules for emissions allowances and trading between countries.

But the deal also confirms that, in 2020, Kyoto will be replaced by a new treaty, which will discard the outdated binary distinction between “developed” and “developing” countries. The new arrangement will require commitments from all countries that are commensurate with their level of development.

The decision in Doha reaffirms that any new agreement must bolster efforts to meet the UN target of limiting global warming to two degrees centigrade. Indeed, it will spur a review of countries’ emissions targets, aimed at closing the gap between current pledges and the reductions needed to remain below the two-degree threshold. The deal also creates a new mechanism to compensate the countries that are suffering the most as a result of climate change.

Moreover, a single negotiation platform has been established, and a 2015 deadline for concluding a new agreement has been set - a much more significant accomplishment than most commentators or governments have recognized.

The last UN climate-change conference took place in Copenhagen in December 2009. In the run-up to that conference, a global campaign put pressure on governments. As a result, the talks were transformed into a full-blown leaders’ summit, with presidents and prime ministers heading to Denmark to seal the deal themselves. But the talks failed to deliver a comprehensive, legally binding agreement, causing investors to lose confidence in a low-carbon economy and delaying progress by several years.

Many fear a similar outcome in 2015, given that conditions seem even less conducive to agreement. Preoccupied by crisis, the world’s leading economies seem unwilling to make significant new emissions-reduction commitments.

And public anxiety about employment and living standards has replaced the fears about global warming that inspired the 2009 movement.

Environmental NGOs worry that raising expectations could worsen the fallout from failure, damaging efforts at the national level to build low-carbon economies. But this threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If expectations are low, talks can only fail.

Although political leaders are not focused on climate change, a big international event can capture their attention, as the Copenhagen conference did.

And next year, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change begins publishing its latest assessment of the scientific evidence, the prospect of runaway climate change is bound to mobilize civil society.

In fact, the current situation, characterized by rising global greenhouse-gas emissions, already amounts to failure, with the current trend putting the two-degree target out of reach in less than a decade.

The only hope is an international movement for immediate action, such as that which, in advance of the Copenhagen conference, compelled the world’s largest carbon emitters - including the United States and China - to set emissions targets.

Indeed, the Copenhagen experience offers some valuable lessons. First, given that countries make international commitments only when their citizens are ready to do so, increasing domestic pressure for emissions reduction is crucial. Every major economy must recognize that investment in “green growth” can create jobs and bolster economic development.

Moreover, combating climate change must again become a moral crusade, which entails appealing to people’s emotions. After all, crossing that two-degree threshold implies condemning future generations to global warming’s most devastating consequences.

Third, developing countries should lead the debate over a new global agreement, in order to ensure equity and protect their right to develop. Climate action should be viewed as a means to improve the well-being of the world’s poorest people - those who most need an agreement - rather than as a burden.

Finally, the involvement of heads of state and government must complement the UN process, rather than supplant it. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for a leader’s summit on climate change in 2014; that summit must now become the focus of public pressure to move toward an agreement in 2015.

The path to an international agreement strong enough to keep global warming under two degrees will be fraught with obstacles.

But, if citizens ratchet up the pressure on their leaders, and policy makers demonstrate vision and leadership, the route can be navigated. The countdown to 2015 has begun.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012

* The author is Visiting Professor in the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics.

by Michael Jacobs
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