Time to re-think climate change

At Durban, we need to rethink the next steps to tackling climate change.

December 5, 2011 21:51
4 minute read.
COP17 President Maite Nkoana-Mashabane

COP17 President Maite Nkoana-Mashabane 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Rogan Ward)


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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?

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Governments have 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.

No 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 level.

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 system.


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.

Given the 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 comprehensively.

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 Office.

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