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World on a tough road to unlock a global climate deal

Written by Imelda V. Abaño / Correspondent BUSINESSMIRROR NEWSPAPER Philippines
Wednesday, 01 July 2009

With just less than six months, world leaders from more than 180 nations will forge an agreement that can contain what may be mankind’s largest challenge in the 21st century. The United Nations climate-change conference slated in Copenhagen, Denmark, will attempt to hammer out a new international treaty to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, a potential successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

As the world moves along the road to Copenhagen, leaders from both developed and developing countries who agreed to shape an ambitious and effective international response to climate change say that the path to a new deal is filled with potential twists and turns—with the world at the same time tackling other serious global issues that demand urgent attention and huge resources, from economic meltdown to food shortages. Indeed, the road to Copenhagen is not going to be easy.

The clock is ticking and the task is daunting. Before the end of this year, world leaders are expected to ratify a treaty regulating the emission of greenhouse gases in Copenhagen, Denmark. And every bit of new climate data since the latest United Nations climate talks has made the mission even more urgent.

At the latest climate talks in Bonn, Germany, in June, the United Nations’ top climate-change official spoke of a “significant session that has advanced our work in an important way.”

“The big achievement of the meeting is that it has made clear what governments want to see in a Copenhagen agreement, which shows their commitment to reaching an agreement,” said Yvo De Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

But the negotiations left many divisions between poor countries and rich countries unresolved, signaling a tough road ahead to reach an agreement by the end of 2009.

“The road to Copenhagen is bumpy, the curves treacherous and unpredictable,” said Connie Hedegaard, minister of climate and energy in Denmark. “The need for sweeping action is indisputable, for the science is very clear that we need to curb emissions now. Each year of delay will mean yet more radical action later on. And delay may even push us beyond a critical tipping point.”

Hedegaard, who chairs the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, told the BusinessMirror the problems of climate change are becoming clear and there is very little time left for preparing a new global deal.

“Tackling climate change will be made no easier by being postponed, and that on the contrary the longer we procrastinate, the more drastic will be the measures required. The economic cost of inaction is far greater than the price of taking action now,” she said.

The numbers game

Behind the millions of words at the series of climate-change talks come simple numbers—on which world leaders from more than 180 countries must agree to seal an ambitious climate deal.

The UNFCCC estimates that in order to avoid the worst of global warming, a new treaty must persuade industrialized countries to cut emissions by 25 percent to 40 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels.

Developing nations want rich countries to sign up to deeper emissions cuts and to pledge greater funding to help poorer nations adapt to climate change and pay for clean-energy technology needed to shift to lower-carbon economies.

For instance, the member-countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have agreed in principle to unite in a common stand to address climate change, and called for bolder and significant cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions by developed countries.

Heherson Alvarez, head of the Philippine delegation, said Asean countries had discussed in recent climate talks calls for “encouraging” cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Science tells us clearly that we must stabilize global emissions within the next 10 to 15 years, or we will reach a tipping point, and then any remedy will become very, very expensive,” Alvarez said.

The Philippines had earlier submitted interventions that call for deep and early cuts of CO2 emissions by industrialized countries of more than 30 percent to 40 percent from 2013 to 2017, and more than 50 percent from 2018 to 2022 based on 1990 levels.

“The deep and early cut will moderate, if not avert, the accelerating destructive storms brought about by global warming,” Alvarez added.

Other developing countries like India and China were exempted from the first round of emissions cuts, with their obligations set to kick in after 2012. But this time, both these countries want rich nations to slash emissions by 40 percent by 2020 and give 0.5 percent to 1 percent of their gross domestic product to poor countries to help these adapt to the climate change.

Though not part of the Kyoto Protocol, India has committed to produce 25 percent of its energy from renewable supplies by 2030; China will increase its energy efficiency by 20 percent within five years.

The European Union has offered a cut by 2020 of 20 percent compared with its emissions in 1990. The United States has proposed a cut of 17 percent compared with 2005 emissions, which translates to about 4 percent by comparison to 1990. Japan announced it would cut emissions by 8 percent and Australia, 5 percent.

50-page blueprint

And so at the latest climate-change negotiations, a 50-page draft negotiation blueprint went up to more than 200 pages after countries filed rival proposals, and may expand even further in the remaining informal talks in August and September.

For Emil Salim, former Indonesian environment minister and head of Indonesia’s delegation of climate-change negotiators, there has been no progress of how countries share the burden of future emissions cuts, adding that the proposals on the table fall dismally short of what is prescribed by the scientists.

“There is little time left. If by September we haven’t seen real progress to resolve these issues, then Copenhagen will be in real trouble,” Salim told the the BusinessMirror.

He lamented that at the moment, there is no agreement in sight on helping poor countries cope with the impacts of climate change. He worried that negotiations might “collapse.”

Pachauri’s warning

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—who shared the 2007 Nobel peace prize with former United States vice president Al Gore—warned that the world’s richest countries must drastically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to mitigate climate-change impacts.

In its 2007 Assessment Report, IPCC had warned that the world has warmed by an average of 0.74°C in the past 100 years as a result of human activity. The warming is caused by excessive GHG emissions in the atmosphere. The IPCC predicts that if GHG emissions continue to rise at their current rate, this century will see a further 3°C rise in the average world temperature.

“The rich countries should make the biggest efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions as rapidly as possible,” Pachauri told the BusinessMirror. “It’s essential that we take action by which we allow emissions to peak no later than 2015.Beyond that, we may reach a tipping point when the world’s poorest communities will suffer the most.”

That is why, Pachauri said, this December’s Copenhagen summit on climate change is so critical for the world’s future. “Copenhagen represents an opportunity which once lost is not going to come back. If we fail to take action and commit to a deep cut on carbon emissions, the impacts of climate change can be disastrous for the stability of human society,” he warned.

US leadership vital

Many developing countries urged the US to take the leadership in combating climate change, saying the Americans “carry the burden of historical responsibility for the climate-change problem, and they have the financial resources and technological capabilities to initiate deep and early cuts in emissions.”

In Copenhagen, the world will await a strong signal from the new American President and Congress that the US is ready to move forward after eight years of inaction by the Bush administration.

Former US president George W. Bush had snubbed the Kyoto treaty in 2001 as one of his first acts in office, saying it was too costly for the world’s largest economy.

“The US has changed dramatically since President Obama came to power. The US wanted to show leadership, they are actively involved in the discussion, they are acting on climate change both at home and internationally, and, most important, the US has indicated that they want to be part of future discussions,” De Boer said.

Jonathan Pershing, deputy envoy for climate change, observed that in the latest climate talks in Bonn, progress is expectedly slow, noting gaps in concepts that remain unresolved.

“The goal of the US is to reach a climate-change agreement in Copenhagen,” Pershing told journalists in the Bonn climate talks. “To succeed in that goal, we believe the series of negotiating sessions leading up to Copenhagen must first establish a foundation of shared understanding among countries. Building on that foundation necessitates an exchange of ideas and a clear view of our common objectives.” But Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, has slim hopes an accord could be reached in time to be ratified by the end of the year.

“I think it’s pretty clear at this stage that we are not going to get to a full and final agreement in Copenhagen,” he told journalists.

Diringer said US commitment to the new treaty will depend primarily on two things: how quickly Congress gets on with the job of enacting mandatory legislation to cap and reduce US emissions; and how prepared other countries are to scale up their national climate efforts and translate them into international commitments.

But last week (June 26), the US took a step forward in its efforts to pass a climate-change bill through the House of Representatives.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act calls for the US to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent by 2050, create “green” jobs and wean the US economy from oil imports. For some, the vote also boosts prospects of reaching an agreement for international action on climate change in December.

“I think it [the US measure] will have a very positive impact on the Copenhagen process because the international negotiations have largely been stymied by countries waiting to see what the US will do,” said Jennifer Haverkamp, director of international climate policy for the Environmental Defense Fund. “Passage of the House bill is just one step in that process, but it is such a crucial step and a high hurdle.”

Melting challenges, stark warnings

Scientists have agreed that climate change is already having an enormous impact, citing the worst ravages of global warming.

A warming world will place hundreds of millions of people at greater risk of food and water shortages, and threaten the survival of thousands of species of plants and animals, they said. Heat waves, rainstorms, tropical cyclones and surges in sea levels are among the events expected to become more frequent, more widespread and more intense—with people in poorer countries suffering the worst effects.

IPCC’s Pachauri told the BusinessMirror that climate change is the premier environmental challenge of the 21st century. “There is a very short window of opportunity and that means we need to move very fast,” Pachauri warned. “The stability of human society could be destroyed if we allow these impacts of climate change to continue unabated and emissions of GHGs remain unmitigated.”

For the past few months, the road to Copenhagen has become crowded with scientific studies offering their own projections of the effects of global warming and prescriptions for stemming rising levels of carbon dioxide.

This month, a synthesis report issued a stark warning that the world faces a growing risk of abrupt and irreversible climatic shifts with unabated GHG emissions.

Based on more than 1,400 studies presented at a scientific climate congress in March 2009 in Copenhagen that attracted 2,000 scientists from more than 70 countries, the report presents the newest scientific evidence that has emerged, since the IPCC report of 2007.

“The report gives an important overview of what science can tell us today about global warming, and perhaps most important, what we can do about it,” Professor Katherine Richardson, who chairs the Scientific Steering Committee of the congress and the writing team, said in a press release.

“Society has all the tools necessary to respond to climate change. The major ingredient missing is political will. Already many societies are struggling with the effects of climate change,” Richardson said. “If society wants to avoid even more serious, and in most cases irreversible impacts of climate change, then there is very little time left.”

Prof. Mohan Munasinghe, chairman of the Munasinghe Institute for Development, Colombo, and director general of the Sustainable Consumption Institute, Manchester University, added that adaptation and mitigation measures must be better integrated with sustainable development strategy.

“Low or no-carbon technologies are critical aspects of the mitigation efforts needed in the 21st century, and adaptation safety nets must protect the poor, who are the most vulnerable to climate-change impacts,” Munasinghe said.

Stefan Rahmstorf of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said new data suggested that unless global GHG emissions were reduced over the next 50 years, sea levels would rise several meters beyond 2100. This would have enormous consequences for people in low-lying nations like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia.

“It’s happening. I think at the moment policy-makers are not aware of the full risks of global warming,” Rahmstorf told this journalist. “If emissions of greenhouse gases are not reduced quickly and substantially, even the best-case scenario will hit hard low-lying coastal areas.”

300,000 annual deaths

In May this year, the Global Humanitarian Forum blamed climate change for 300,000 deaths each year; and said it affects 300 million people. It projects that increasingly severe heat waves, floods, storms and forest fires will be responsible for as many as 500,000 deaths a year by 2030, making it the greatest humanitarian challenge the world faces.

Due to climate change, economic losses today amount to more than $125 billion a year. And by 2030, the report says, climate change could cost $600 billion a year. Lord Nicholas Stern, a British economist who produced the single most influential political document on climate change (the Stern Review of Economics on Climate Change), said the two greatest problems of our times—overcoming poverty in the developing world and combating climate change—are inextricably linked.

In his new book published early this year, A Blueprint For A Safer Planet: How to Manage Climate Change and Create A New Era of Progress and Prosperity, Lord Stern said, “ignoring climate change would result in an increasingly hostile environment for development and poverty reduction.”

The world, he said, “will need political leadership which is not only thoughtful and measured but also courageous and inspirational. That leadership must set out the compelling scientific and economic case for strong action. It must show not only the severe dangers of a planet in peril, but also that if we act sensibly and strongly, starting now, we can dramatically reduce those risks at reasonable cost.”

For its part, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said it will double its annual clean-energy investments to $2 billion to accelerate the reduction of GHG emissions in developing Asia and boost the global campaign against climate change. The bank has increased its clean-energy investment from the previous $1 billion.

ADB president Haruhiko Kuroda himself noted that the annual $2-billion investment is a “significant commitment” but this “represents only a fraction of the region’s financing needs in the area of clean energy.”

Among the ADB’s clean-energy investment projects are power transmission enhancements in Azerbaijan; wind power projects in China and India; hydropower development in Bhutan, China and Vietnam; plans for energy-efficient lighting for low-income households in the Philippines; and a biomass power plant in Thailand.

Disappearing nations

According to the IPCC, global climate change and sea-level rise is expected to threaten vital infrastructure and structures supporting the livelihood of many Asia-Pacific island communities.

Scientists have also warned that these low-lying islands are at risk of disappearing altogether by the middle of the century.

But for the leaders of small island-countries, this is not a new issue.

“We don’t believe that migration is adaptation, but in a doomsday scenario we don’t have much choice but to relocate ourselves and the whole nation in order to survive,” Mohamed Aslam, Maldives minister for housing, transport and environment, said in an interview. “But for now, finding a new homeland is absolutely not an option yet. It’s not easy to abandon our culture, our heritage and our identity.”

The Maldives, 1,200 low-lying islets in the Pacific with 400,000 inhabitants, is among the most vulnerable to rising sea levels and storm surges.

Aslam said their government is making their nation more resilient to climate change by building seawall infrastructures surrounding their islands, a waste-management plan and a comprehensive low-carbon economy through renewable energy. “For us, survival is not negotiable. We will have to seal the deal so that developing countries like us will benefit from transfer of technology and funding mechanism of scale for mitigation and adaptation from rich countries.”

Koko Warner, head of section of the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), said climate change will in the coming years motivate or force millions of people to leave their homes in search of viable livelihoods and safety.

But to avert the impact of climate change on people, all countries must plan for human security, invest in resilient livelihoods, prioritize the world’s most vulnerable populations and include migration and adaptation strategies in future planning, Warner said.

Media’s role

The media have played a central role in spreading awareness on climate change, Pachauri told journalists early this month at the ADB’s climate-change meeting in Manila.

“In my view, there has been a massive exposure on urgency and depth of the issues arising from the scientific findings on climate change, and the media have been effectively doing their crucial role in communicating climate information to the public,” Pachauri said.

He noted that when the IPCC and environmental campaigner Al Gore won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, widespread dissemination of scientific knowledge on climate change on behalf of the IPCC was due to the works of the media as “more people are now strongly in favor of action to tackle climate change.”

“Although the media are now focusing on climate-change issues, they should also go beyond the normal range of coverage like reporting on mitigation and adaptation and encouraging policymakers to act on combating climate change armed with scientific data,” he said.

For the next six months, Pachauri told the BusinessMirror, the world will be watching how the media intensify coverage on climate change, and how well they shape public opinion as well as influence policy.

“The media should deal more with the scientific basis for action as the main driver for the climate-change negotiations, and not focus per se on the political debate of the negotiations,” he lamented.

What to expect in Copenhagen?

The climax of the series of climate-change talks will probably happen in Copenhagen in December, when heads of state convene under the UN banner to declare their commitments to address climate change.

Among the key issues to be resolved are GHG emission-reduction targets by developed countries, commitments to curb emissions growth by developing countries, and financing commitments by the rich world to help the developing world’s effort.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has characterized climate change as a “grave global threat” that puts humanity at one of its most critical moments in history. With this grave threat come incredible opportunities that “we must seize.”

“Climate change is the defining challenge of our time,” the secretary general said via video during last month’s high-level dialogue on climate change in Asia-Pacific at the ADB headquarters in Manila. “We must harness the necessary political will to seal the deal on an ambitious new climate agreement in Copenhagen.”

He urged participants to invest in new technologies, particularly in renewables, to ultimately create a low-carbon economy. “Let us seal the deal to power green growth and seal the deal to protect our planet.”

For UNFCCC’s De Boer, there are four political essentials to unleash action for a “make or break” deal in Copenhagen.

First, there should be clarity on quantified emissions objectives for industrialized countries. Second, clarity on targets for developing countries that enable economic growth and poverty reduction but allow for measurable, reportable and verifiable reductions in comparison to what they are doing currently. Third, clarity on how to support adaptation and mitigation efforts. Fourth, clarity on institutional framework to deliver support for mitigation and adaptation which ensures ownership by developing countries.

“It is imperative for countries to seal the deal in Copenhagen,” De Boer told the BusinessMirror. “If we fail to act on climate change, it is going to dramatically affect everyone’s lives and may ultimately put the planet in peril.”

But De Boer conceded it is not possible between now and the end of the Copenhagen summit to finalize every last detail of a post-2012 treaty.

“There is going to be work after Copenhagen,” he told a press conference at the latest round of UN climate talks in Bonn. “What I would like to see come out of Copenhagen is a robust architecture to address climate change that is attractive to as many countries as possible so that we have a solid foundation to build on moving forward from there.”

Copenhagen, he added, must mobilize very significant financial and technological resources to assist developing countries in their adaptation measures and additional mitigation actions. Such resources were estimated to reach as much as $250 billion per annum in 2020.

Saleemul Huq, senior fellow in the International Institute for Environment and Development’s climate-change group, said civil society organizations, scientists and people all over the planet “need to push their leaders to take action.”

“This action must not only serve national interests but must be guided by science and a spirit of global solidarity. The immediate priority is that rich countries must pledge finance to tackle climate change,” he said.

Without pledges, he thinks “nothing else will follow. The world cannot wait until the UN summit in Copenhagen in December. If rich countries hold out until then we won’t get a global deal.”

Environmentalists warn, however, that the talks are moving too slow to get a deal in time for Copenhagen in December.

In the latest round of talks in Bonn in early June, Antonio Hill, Oxfam International’s policy advisor, said that in order to have an “equitable and just” deal, rich countries must show they are willing to play their part to commit to combined emissions reductions of at least 40 percent on 1990 levels by 2020, and deliver financial support needed to help developing countries adapt to climate change and build a low-carbon future.

“We need world leaders to grip the urgency of climate change with the same vigor applying to the economic crisis,” Hill said. “World leaders need to get a grip on the talks to ensure the right deal is made in Copenhagen.”

Oxfam is also calling on rich countries to provide at least $50 billion in new money each year to help the poorest countries adapt to the impact of climate change.

In WWF’s view, Copenhagen has to be the start of a real transformation and the chance for all governments to make significant commitments.

“We wanted to see political breakthrough. We’re losing time,” Kim Carstensen, leader of WWF’s Global Climate Initiative, said.

The Copenhagen deal is just the start of a long road of continuous negotiations. It will not deliver all the changes needed for a long-term sustained action on climate change. However, Copenhagen is our best chance to secure a global deal and for world leaders to play their part in ensuring that agreements are strong, effective and just.


Imelda Abaño has extensively covered the UNFCCC climate-change negotiations since 2007 from Bali, Indonesia, to Poznan, Poland, to Bonn, Germany; she will cover the upcoming series of UN-backed climate-change talks until the Copenhagen summit in December. She is sponsored by the UNFCCC media fellowship for developing countries.

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