Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Perhaps only self-interest can save us from catastrophic climate change

The failure of international negotiations on climate change has left the field open for those countries and even companies which take action now to dominate the emerging economic markets in the future.

Next December, UN negotiators will meet in Durban, South Africa, for the next attempt at the top level to secure international agreement on limiting climate change.

On the basis of current legislation and action, the world as a whole is now headed towards unavoidable global warming of between 2.6 and 4°C Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This is well ahead of the maximum permissible amount of between 2 and 1.5°.

It will result in large tracts of the planet becoming uninhabitable.

To keep warming limited to the 1.5° target, global total emissions need to drop below 44 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent per year (CO2e/yr) by 2020. Currently, there is a gap of 12 billion tonnes of CO2e/yr.

At the climate change conference in Cancun at the end of 2010, countries discussed a wide range of options. If they implemented the most stringent reductions they proposed then, together with the most stringent accounting, the remaining “reduction gap" would shrink to 8 billion tonnes of CO2e/yr.

Failure to secure binding, legal agreements at the last two sessions in Copenhagen and Cancun has resulted in many countries instituting their own domestic climate change legislation.

A new survey of such legislation, as enacted in 16 countries, shows the extent to which this is happening.

It concludes that, although current legislation does not add up to what is required to avoid dangerous climate change, much greater attention should be paid to national level policy and legislative development, as building blocks towards a global deal.

The countries who have steamed ahead include large developing ones such as Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. Together, they amount to a formidable economic growth engine and are demonstrating their determination to forge ahead and dominate future markets in low carbon technologies and energy efficiency.

The report's author is GLOBE, (‘Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment’), founded in 1989, based at the London School of Economics, which is trying to create a critical mass of legislators that can agree common legislative responses to the major global environmental challenges.

Its president, John Gummer (a former Conservative environment minister), said: “The study illustrates that the shape of the debate on climate change is shifting from being about sharing a global burden – with governments naturally trying to minimise their share – to a realisation that acting on climate change is in the national interest.”

National interest is surely a much more powerful motivator than external pressure. For example, the Chinese and Brazilian governments see it in their national interest to create conditions for their countries to be world leaders in renewable energy.

International agreement will only reflect domestic political conditions, not the other way round. This is why the American government finds it so hard to commit to international climate change agreements - its long history of world dominance based on oil still provides its political direction with huge momentum.

On the other hand, Brazil, which has been a pioneer in bioethanol from sugar cane since the 1970s is now exporting its expertise and products.

The legislators who craft these laws meet periodically - the last time was barely a month and a half ago, in Brazil. There will be another, much more significant, meeting just ahead of the United Nations Rio +20 Summit on 4th - 6th June 2012.

This Earth Summit, otherwise known as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, will assess progress, and absolutely must recharge international and national political commitment to sustainable development in the face of many new and emerging challenges.

The climate legislation being enacted in many countries is also putting in place the legal and policy frameworks to monitor, report, verify and manage carbon. Monitoring was a key stumbling block in previous negotiations. For example, it was the subject of a huge disagreement between the United States and China which stalled the 2009 negotiations.

National experience in instituting monitoring and verification systems could help inform and support an international MRV mechanism to prevent this being a barrier again in Durban.

As of April 2011, the UK had the most climate change related laws, with 22, and South Africa had the fewest with just 3. However, this is a poor indicator of effectiveness since some laws are comprehensive and others narrow in scope. But Britain is the only one to have a climate change act with binding reduction levels.

In addition, there is much legislation in preparation: the Chinese government is drafting a comprehensive climate change law to support the goals in its new 12th Five Year Plan; Mexico’s General Law on Adaptation and Mitigation and General Law on Climate Change are being debated; and the South African government is expected to publish a White Paper ahead of hosting the UN climate change negotiations in Durban in December.

Finally, much is happening at a regional level - California has amongst the most ambitious renewable energy targets in the world, and Wales almost uniquely has sustainable development enshrined in its constitution. Such regions are positioning themselves to be better protected in the emerging low carbon economy.

Clearly, a greater sense of urgency is required and the negotiations at Durban must be a success if disaster is not to be avoided.

But if it is not altruism that will save us. Human beings are not renowned for their altruism in the face of vague and distant threats.

It is instead in countries' selfish national interests that they pioneer and implement radical climate change legislation. As the UK is now a global leader in this respect (despite its limitations and domestic criticism of it), it has much to teach the world and much to be proud of.

As UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne said on Tuesday, ″The race is on, and the pioneers are the most likely winners.″

Perhaps no amount of legislation can save us from catastrophic change. Perhaps the logic of capitalism - seeking permanent growth and ever-expanding markets - is incompatible with sustainability and living on a finite planet.

I guess we'll find out some day.

No comments: