We need to rethink our approach on tackling climate change

The UN’s efforts on climate change must be better planned, in order to be worthwhile.

un climate change conference 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
un climate change conference 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
The main aim of the United Nations Climate Change Conference at Durban, which began on November 28 and finishes on December 9, is to produce an agreement about target emissions levels by developed countries and longer-term targets from developing countries. But, with sudden switches in energy policies, environmental regulations, increasing financial fragility and accidents such as Fukushima, national governments are increasingly aware how policy in these areas impacts on everyone’s lives as well as the economy.
Decision-makers have a great responsibility and a very difficult task to pursue long-term objectives at the same time as short-term solutions, especially when it comes to climate change. The key question is how best to do this and whether this involve only national, regional and city-level policies, or are binding global agreements also necessary?
Governments have become more cautious about signing up to 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 some economists are adopting 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 more time to come to grips with their emissions than those with falling populations and advanced technology such as countries in Europe. The influential Stern Review 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, as well as key developing countries like China and India, on a global climate deal is a less-than-optimal negotiation process. As was the case 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 be successful if it focuses on engaging and enabling the rapidly growing and diverse array of national, regional 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.
Rather than looking to the global big picture, governments across the world are focusing like a hawk on the problems climate change are causing themselves, individually, and finding their own ways to deal with them, rather than seeking a globally-prescribed magic bullet). For instance, coastal nations such as The Netherlands are increasingly threatened by rising sea levels, whereas China (now the world's leader in CO2 emissions) is increasingly at risk of heat waves, floods, droughts and desertification. China’s numerous ‘megacities’ (those consisting 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 dikes as in Rotterdam. City governments often have greater leeway to experiment with solutions than national governments and giving them even more responsibility to tackle climate change would probably help expedite national solutions.
This growing patchwork of national, regional and city-level initiatives would benefit immensely at Durban if improved frameworks can be agreed upon for collaboration. These should include deals to facilitate inter-governmental cooperation on tackling emissions, as well as 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.
In summary, Durban would achieve more if it was a realistic meeting aimed at enabling and strengthening different national, regional 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 like Copenhagen, scientists should be included to explain how the most effective local actions should be related to mitigating local climate change and its effects in each region. These effects need to be measured much more comprehensively.
The UN process on climate change is important, but negotiations and promises on paper do not reduce emissions - only action on the ground can achieve that.

Lord Hunt is Visiting Professor at Delft University of Technology and a former Director-General of the UK Met Office.