Sunday, November 23, 2014
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The Climate Countdown

LONDON – 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But the deal also confirms that, in 2020, Kyoto will be replaced by a new treaty, which will discard the outdated binary distinction between “developed” and “developing” countries.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 policymakers demonstrate vision and leadership, the route can be navigated. The countdown to 2015 has begun.

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    1. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      The article says:
      "...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..."
      This is what happens when we view things in isolation, when we do not understand that we are in one single crisis that originates from the same root, and there are no separate, different crisis situations or flash-points.
      Very simply the only reason humanity is at war with the environment, losing control over the socio-economic system, sinking into threatening geo-political situations, presiding over crisis in every human made institution is humanity's separation from the natural system people exist in.
      We still stubbornly hold on to that notion that humans are separate, they are above the system and they can do whatever they want. While the whole, vast natural ecosystem thrives towards overall balance and homeostasis, humanity is breaking this balance with the present excessive, unnatural, and subsequently unsustainable lifestyle, and socio-economic system, based on ruthless competition and exploitation within the same species.
      We do not need to worry about separate, and specific solutions for all the seemingly different problems, we simply have to learn the basic laws of nature and adapt to them in everything we do.

        CommentedElly Hermon

        Mobilizing public opinion for limiting global worming by cutting GHG emissions, as suggested by this article, is surely desirable. However, preaching the affluent about the need for more harmonious Man-Nature relations, the lack of which is rightly considered as an important root-cause of the environmental and economic crises affecting contemporary society, is unlikely to induce most of them to reorient their unsustainable lifestyle, though it may have some impact as a long-term educational goal. In the short run, focusing on concrete measures at the policymaking level may prove more productive. For this purpose innovative thinking is badly needed.
        Trading pollution rights is perhaps not the most appropriate approach to ensure effective curbing of GHG emissions, though it has allegedly produced some positive results from an economic perspective. Alternative measures, potentially by far more efficient, should be envisaged to ensure more significant advances in this area. This is not likely to be achieved without inducing GHG emitters and associated economic players to accept significant reorientation of the current carbon-based economic system. This may be achieved through a well conceived application of a “stick and carrot” approach. On the one hand, this involves adoption of binding agreements on limiting GHG emissions and universally applicable regardless the level of development. Establishing an effective enforcement mechanism is indispensable for this purpose. Failure to respect the established GHG emission standards should be penalized. On the other hand, compliance with these standards should be rewarded by assistance to transition to a low carbon-based economy. This assistance may partly come from penalties paid for non compliance with the GHG emission standards. From a cost-benefit perspective it should be noted that the very process of economic restructuring is expected to revitalize the economic system while curbing anthropogenic climate change is expected to limit related highly costly loss and damage. The successful application of such a strategy combining enforcement and incentives is likely to debunk allegations that sound environmental policy is incompatible with economic growth by showing that transition to a low carbon based economy is beneficial from both an environmental and an economic perspective.

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