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 how policy in these areas impacts on everyone’s lives as well as the economy.
Decision-makers thus have a great responsibility and a very difficult task to pursue long term objectives at the same time, especially about 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?
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 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 sup-optimal negotiations process. As proved 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 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 to the global big picture, governments across the world are focusing like a laser right now on the problems climate change are causing them specifically (which can vary dramatically from country to country), and finding their own ways to deal with them (rather than seeking a globally-prescribed guide for this). 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 levels 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, Durban would achieve most if it was a realistic meeting aimed at enabling and strengthening different regional, national and city initiatives across the world to reduce emissions in the short to medium term and relate these programmes to sustainability in general. Unlike other recent UN meetings like Copenhagen, 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.
By Julian Hunt, CB, MA, PhD, FIMA, FRS