Climate Change on the Road to Rio

Next week, Rio de Janeiro will host the Rio+20 conference – a reminiscence of the path-breaking Earth Summit that took place there 20 years ago, in 1992. Back then, the world community committed itself (at least verbally) to sustainability and laid foundations for many subsequent efforts to protect the environmental basis which our livelihoods depend upon. Since then, much has changed – some to the better, some to the worse. Today, probably the most urgent threat to humanity is climate change – in fact, it was in 1992 already, even though the science of climate change was not so consistent and clear then as it is now. It is only natural to expect that the new Earth Summit will bring at least some steps toward a successful combat against anthropogenic climate change. However, the prospects do not appear as good as one might wish.

The evidence that we do not have much time left if we want to avoid really dangerous interference with the Earth’s climate is mounting. Only recently, scientists found out that Chinese CO2-emissions – and thus, global CO2-emissions as well – may have been as much as 1,4 Gt higher in 2010 than previously estimated. This is about 5% of the global emissions that year (remember that China already has overtaken the U.S. as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter). As if it wouldn’t be enough that last year registered record annual growth in global CO2-emissions.

This only adds to a list of reasons for concern that also includes, among others: rapidly melting Greenland glaciers; the relative failure of the global community to agree on a meaningful and binding set of measures to limit global warming at the last COP in Durban; continuously increasing (or, at best, not declining) investments in fossil fuel energy sources; dramatic ice loss in the Arctic; etc. The need to act strongly, and at a possibly fast pace, is higher than ever. This is so especially because we appear to be close to a technological lock-in situation – in times when many countries have to make important decisions regarding their energy systems (e.g., China, Japan, Germany…) the risk of committing to a fossil-fuel-heavy path for years to come is high, especially given the recent natural gas boom (more on that here).

Meanwhile, the Rio summit draft text has leaked (it can be read here) and reveals conflicting opinions among the governments involved with regard to almost every issue – including climate change. Not only is there the traditional North-South division, also within the “blocks” there seems to be no agreement. This has multiple reasons: different vulnerability (it is clear that the Maldives are much more strong-willed than, say, Switzerland – both because of “physical” vulnerability and the capability to cope with it); economic interests that are at stakes (particularly in the case of the fast-growing, highly fossil-fuel dependent emerging countries); and partly also ideology (which is the main reason e.g. for many US-American Republicans to reject meaningful global action on climate change). It does not look like there were much of important agreement here.

But is Rio+20 that important? Can’t we wait until the next climate conference in Kuwait later this year? In practical terms – probably we could. It is unlikely that all important political and technological decisions that determine which emissions path the world will take in the midterm future will take place within the half-year between the two conferences. However, Rio+20 is important due to its symbolic nature. 20 years ago, humanity made its biggest step toward sustainability in our modern history – despite all the weaknesses and flaws of what we agreed upon then. Today, we face threats that are both more critical and more scientifically certain. We don’t have the overall solution strategy, but a lot of potential inputs, approaches etc.Therefore, if we fail to change the course and steer toward true sustainability (including a successful action on climate change) – it would be of dramatic symbolic importance, just as the original Rio conference was, but of the opposite sign. And: if we can agree on saving the Earth’s climate in Kuwait, why shouldn’t we be able to do it in Rio?

It has to start somewhere
It has to start sometime
What better place than here?
What better time than now?

[update 12-06-12] There is an interesting article on Project Syndicate related to my post: Green Unilateralism.



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