With a global, comprehensive agreement still elusive, we need a new climate change 'road-map'
* By Lord Julian Hunt. The main aim of the UN climate summit at Durban, which concluded unsuccessfully on Friday/Saturday morning, was to produce an agreement about targets for emissions by developed countries, and longer term commitments from developing countries.
The current estimate, from several models, for global temperature rise by 2100 is 3.5 degrees Celsius. This is a truly devastating conclusion that, as I will argue, underlines why many, including me, believe global warming represents the biggest threat to mankind in the twenty first century.
Perhaps the key problem in reaching a global comprehensive deal remains the fact that attention of policy makers is currently focused upon more immediate issues such as financial fragility, changes in energy policies, and accidents with global consequences such as Fukushima. Increasingly, Governments are finding it increasingly unpopular with electorates to devote resources and political capital to perceived longer term objectives of climate change.
After the climate summits in Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010), the only international consensus that has emerged is that: global temperature rise should ideally be limited to 2 degrees Celsius; that emission policies should be determined at the regional (e.g. European), national and city-level; and the role of the UN should be primarily to monitor and coordinate these 'bottom-up' policies.
The key question for Durban had been whether to continue to seek now -- or at some future date -- to strengthen international action by defining global targets and timetables for nations to reach them.
Such an agreement is unlikely for at least the next few years and maybe longer. This is not least because of the growing caution of politicians about signing long lasting and tightly defined transnational agreements that might affect their flexibility to respond to changing circumstances.
Furthermore, some economists argue that an agreement is unnecessary because future economic growth will lead to the panacea of limitless technological solutions to provide low carbon energy and the costs of adaptation against climate impacts. Some (often developed) countries, including Canada, with rich reserves of fossil fuel of high carbon content support such arguments for their own economic reasons. This is despite the inevitable damage to the biosphere and loss of human life in the meantime.
Another complicating factor is that many developing countries insist their economies must grow significantly before they can start reducing their total emissions and therefore cannot yet agree to internationally defined targets. That said, they are generally determined to make their contribution by improving the efficiency of their industries.
As Governments consider the case for extending, replacing or delaying the Kyoto agreement of 1997 that expires in 2012, they have to face up to the array of these very difficult issues. One potential solution, offered by Lord Prescott, the former UK Deputy Prime Minister, and one of the chief Kyoto negotiators, is a 'stop the clock' hiatus period of a few years, before which time a new framework 'Kyoto 2' agreement could perhaps be agreed by most major countries.
By then the practicality of rapidly changing energy technologies, such as carbon sequestration, large scale solar energy applications, fuels based on biomass and low-waste nuclear systems, many of which are being utilised in emerging economies, will become clearer. Since by then progress towards national targets of the advanced developing countries will also become clearer, this should facilitate coordination of those targets with developed economies in a global Kyoto 2 framework.
Although no comprehensive, global agreement was reached at Durban, the high level commitment by the UN and national governments to dealing with climate change encouraged those hundreds of organisations, engaged in practical programmes, which came to South Africa. These groups included a major symposium of policies and national laws by 60 legislators and international officials gathered together by Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE) in Cape Town.
Standing against these organisations, who are deeply concerned about the serious ramifications of man-made climate change, there are now numerous well-funded, influential individuals and lobbies which often seek to discredit the scientific basis of agreed policies. As a result, there were many presentations and discussions at Durban of updated scientific and societal evidence of climate change.
Recent measurements are consistent with the predicted complex effects in the atmosphere, ocean and on land caused by man-made climate change. For instance, the steady increase in temperatures over land areas of the world has steadily risen (2 degrees Celsius, for example, over China in 50 years), while the surface layers of the ocean in this decade have cooled especially over the Pacific.
This is, to be sure, a long lasting and natural cycle. But the deeper ocean has simultaneously been warming, resulting in a steady rise in the global average of sea level. In the tropical seas surrounding low-lying coastal areas and islands the level is rising about 3 times faster, so that the very existence of the local communities are now at risk.
A passionate statement by a Russian legislator at Durban, endorsed by a colleague representing a constituency in northern Canada, described the consequences of the warming in the Arctic. This includes the hitherto unknown phenomenon of widespread thunderstorms, melting of the permafrost and the global effects of the release of methane.
Elsewhere, millions of people are affected in the Himalayan Indian-Tibetan border country because of reduced rainfall and crops. Combining surface and satellite data, and high resolution computer climate models, it is clear that these trends will become
progressively more serious.
These disturbing phenomena are driving legislators around the world to introduce regional, national and city-level climate change legislation and regulations to control emissions, preserve forests, marine areas and other critical environments. At the same time, an estimated 9000 companies are working together and collaborating with governments about economic measures to enable the private sector to have a framework for long range investment decisions.
This is hugely positive and, as the dangers of international non-coordination is increasingly understood, increasing numbers of people will probably press their governments to establish a comprehensive, global agreement with the UN about emission reductions.
However, even such a deal will be useless without rigorous monitoring of the changing environment and the actions of governments and industries. High level science and technology, on the ground inspection, and international collaboration based on secure agreements, must thus be key foundation stones of a future road map for tackling climate change.
* Lord Julian Hunt is Visiting Professor at Delft University of Technology, former Director-General of the UK Met Office, and Vice-President of Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE).