The main aim of the UN climate summit at Durban, which began on November 28 and
finishes on December 9, is to produce an agreement about targets for emissions
by developed countries, and longer-term targets from developing countries. But
with sudden switches in energy policies, environmental regulations and accidents
such as Fukushima, plus increasing financial fragility, national governments are
increasingly aware of how policy in these areas impacts on everyone’s lives, as
well as the economy.
Decision-makers thus have the great responsibility
and the very difficult task of pursuing several long-term objectives at the same
time, especially with regard to climate change. The key question is how best to
do this, and should this involve only regional, national and city-level
policies, or are binding global agreements also necessary?
become more cautious about signing new, long-lasting and tightly defined
transnational agreements that might affect their flexibility to respond to
changing circumstances. Moreover, a global deal on climate change may be less
effective than regional, national and city level initiatives because global
treaties are sometimes perceived as insensitive to the different technologies
and time scales for emission reduction in varying countries.
government yet endorses the extreme position of some economists that future
economic growth will lead to the panacea of limitless technological solutions in
the future. However, governments with rapidly growing populations and developing
technology, such as many of those in Asia and Africa, will need longer to get to
grips with their emissions than those with falling populations and advanced
technology such as in Europe. The influential Stern report on the economics of
climate change does not take this into account.
SO SHOULD Durban
concentrate on what may ultimately prove to be unproductive negotiations on a
comprehensive, global agreement? Or would it be wiser to find a more
collaborative way to respond to climate change?
Underlying the current stalemate
between developed countries such as Canada, Russia and Japan and key developing
countries like China and India on a global climate deal is a sub-optimal
negotiations process. As proved in Copenhagen, hugely ambitious political deals
are being discussed which are neither ripe for agreement now, nor framed to
inspire people to act and collaborate on both a local and regional
This is not, however, to deny the importance of the UN process –
it creates political pressure to do more. But Durban is much more likely to
succeed if it focuses on engaging and enabling the rapidly growing and diverse
array of regional, national and city level climate change mitigation and
adaptation measures already in place – such as the European carbon trading
The latter, despite its mixed record due to early design flaws,
is already proving of significant interest for countries looking to introduce
their own carbon trading systems, including Asian countries like South Korea and
potentially China, too.
Rather than looking at the global big picture,
governments are focusing specifically on the problems their countries face (and
these can vary dramatically from country to country) and finding their own ways
to deal with them.
For instance, coastal nations such as the Netherlands
are increasingly at risk from rising sea levels, whereas China (now the world’s
largest emitter of CO2 emissions) is increasingly at risk of heat-waves, floods,
droughts and desertification. China’s numerous “megacities” (those of 10 million
or more inhabitants) are especially at risk of heat-waves.
particular challenge for urban areas, cities are helping to lead the charge to
action. Right now, municipal governments are adopting some of the most
innovative ways of adapting to worsening climate hazards, including showing how
to integrate these measures with considerable savings in costs – such as putting
wind turbines on dykes as in Rotterdam.
City governments often have
greater scope to experiment with solutions than national government, and giving
them even more responsibility to tackle climate change would probably help
expedite national solutions.
This growing patchwork of regional, national
and city level initiatives would benefit immensely at Durban if improved
frameworks can be agreed for collaboration. These should include deals to
facilitate inter-governmental cooperation on tackling emissions, and sharing
technology and expertise.
A productive outcome at Durban would also
include better enablement of private sector innovation to reduce emissions and
mitigation of the consequences of climate change. What is needed here are more
initiatives like the Carbon Disclosure Project, which collects self-reporting of
emissions and emissions reduction strategies by firms worldwide, offering the
opportunity for learning from one another’s solutions.
In summary, the
Durban conference would be most effective if it were to be a realistic meeting
aimed at enabling and strengthening regional, national and city initiatives
across the world to reduce emissions in the short-to-medium term and relate
these programs to sustainability in general.
Unlike other recent UN
meetings, scientists should be there, too, explaining how the most effective
local actions should be related to mitigating local climate change and the
particular effects in each region. These need to be measured much more
The UN process on climate change is important. But,
negotiations and even promises on paper do not reduce emissions. Only
action on the ground can achieve that.
The writer is visiting professor
at Delft University of Technology and a former director-general of the UK Met