Five days ago the 17th Conference of Parties (COP17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was launched in Durban, South Africa. 19 years have gone past since the path-breaking United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro where the UNFCCC was created, and 17 years since its parties agreed upon the so-called Kyoto Protocol – a joint effort of developed countries particularly to tackle anthropogenic climate change. Next year the Kyoto Protocol is going to expire. So, it is worth-while to think about what needs to be done – and contrast that with what one can “reasonably” expect from the members of the international community gathered together in Durban these days.
Since 1994 when the Kyoto Protocol was signed, two developments have taken place parallel to each other. On the one hand, the scientific evidence that climate change is man-made and that it poses significant threats to humanity has grown rapidly. Today we know that we are the ones who should be able to prevent climate change from becoming a disaster (primarily by drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions induced by human activity). We also know that if we don’t, the long-term consequences are likely to be dire. More intense weather extremes, rising sea levels and the breakdown of ecosystems are only a few things expecting us if we do nothing (or not enough).
At the same time, the other development is the steady and rapid increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Not only are we approaching the last possible turning point – we are doing that at an increasingly fast pace.
So, what needs be done in Durban? First of all, there is a need for decision-makers worldwide to realize that we are heeding toward a catastrophe. We cannot ignore it any more (let alone deny it) – the longer we wait, the more difficult will it be to stabilize the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at a sustainable level, and the smaller will be the probability of success. The active recognition of this is the conditio sine qua non of all further considerations about how to tackle climate change.
Secondly, we must accept that is is too late for cheap solutions to suffice. Whatever the actual solution approach chosen – it is going to be costly. But we have to keep in mind that unchecked climate change is very likely to be far more costly than almost any imaginable solution – however inefficient the latter may be. Thus, attitudes like those of the US government – being ready to accept only an agreement making one’s country better off in the short term – are not only naive, they are terribly harmful, dangerous and – stupid.
Thirdly, since climate change is a global phenomenon, it has to be challenged globally. No-one can solve the problem domestically, although the Chinese leadership sometimes seem to believe the opposite. All solutions to climate change are global. And this leads to the much discussed, but highly controversial issue of climate justice. There are at least three parties involved in the bargain of how to share the burden of the climate change tackling effort. First, there are the developed countries with their high standard of living paid for with high historic cumulated emissions of greenhouse gases. Then there are the so-called emerging economies – notably China, Brazil, India and the host of COP17 South Africa – whose historic cumulated emissions are not as high, but whose current emissions feeding their rapid economic development (which has lifted millions of people out of poverty) are among the highest in the world. At last, there is the large group of developing countries whose emissions (both in absolute and in per capita terms) are low and whose populations are poor – and more vulnerable to climate change than any other. So while the poorest countries can only hope for the richer ones to commit to fighting climate change, this agreement must be found between the “Western” rich and the ever richer emerging countries, who nevertheless still suffer high levels of poverty. Whatever the exact deal, it is cleat that developed countries have to bear most of the burden – due to their historic responsibility and their financial and structural ability. But, at the same time, China, Brazil and others have to accept that it is in their own interest to cooperate. Otherwise their current accumulation of wealth is likely to be followed by a large drop a few decades from now.
While discussing burden-sharing, it is imperative not to forget about adaptation. Even if we were to stop all emissions now, climate system inertia will lead to some further changes in the middle run. To these changes humanity, especially vulnerable poor countries, must adapt. And they need help in doing that – in form of financial and technological support.
Fourthly, it is important to apply all feasible solutions that we have, and to beware one-size-fits-all approaches. Every region in the world has another potential – geographical, economic, climatic, social and cultural. Solutions must be sought that fit these regional preconditions best – e.g., it is reasonable to expect a more widespread use of solar energy in the tropics and, say, geothermal energy in Iceland. At the same time it is important to consider all proposed solutions – even though some of the more controversial ones (like geoengineering, nuclear fission, biofuels or CCS) may be decided to have net negative impacts. But such decisions must be taken after a reasoned consideration of factual arguments, not based on emotions or vested interests. It may even be that we are going to be forced to choose “between bad and worse”.
All this (and perhaps more) is required for a sensible, feasible and successful global post-Kyoto agreement on climate change. The sooner such an agreement is reached, the better for us and our descendants.
However, there is a problem I call here the need-expect dichotomy. While we need what I tried to outline above, I am afraid that we shouldn’t realistically expect it to actually happen. Not in Durban, most probably not in Rio next year or on any other COP in the near term. Apparently, the urgency of the problem has not been yet recognized by all. The acceptance of costly (in the short term) solutions is low across the world, although for different reasons. National, short-sighted interests seem to dominate any farther-reaching analysis, together with vested interests of powerful lobbies – especially in rich countries. The Durban conference is likely to be another Cancún – where no failure is a success.
And all the while the world is getting ever more out of balance.