As climate talks stall, momentum for change?

Solar-powered LED street lighting in China’s Guiyang community, huge solar panels in India’s Rajasthan desert, projects to improve energy efficiency in South Africa – all have one thing in common.

Solar-powered LED street lighting in China’s Guiyang community, huge solar panels in India’s Rajasthan desert, projects to improve energy efficiency in South Africa – all have one thing in common. They are moving towards a green future without waiting for a global treaty on how to combat climate change.
That is what the United Nations is trying to showcase as talks towards a global treaty remain bogged down at the annual conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – at best there will be a deal that will fall far short of what the world needs to do to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are warming the planet.

Sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the three-year Momentum for Change initiative of the UNFCCC was kicked off by UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon and South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma at the climate summit being held in Durban. UN officials hoped this would enthuse recalcitrant negotiators from various countries to move towards a greener future.

The need to do this was underlined by the UN chief just a few hours before the launch, when he pointed to the devastation caused by recent floods in Thailand and Pakistan and the drought in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa  – climate scientists have said global warming increases the frequency and severity of floods, storms and droughts. “The poorest are the worst affected by all this,” Mr Ban pointed out. “We have no time to lose. We need progress in climate negotiations now.”

Mr Ban has been saying this for more than three years now, with very little effect. He told a questioner, “I can share your frustration that this process is taking so long. It is up to the (UN) member states and their political will. It is true that there are economic and political compulsions, but they have to look beyond their national borders.” The UN chief said he was “encouraged to hear” the offer made by China during this conference to take on legally binding emission reduction commitments after 2020 if certain conditions were fulfilled.

Climate Justice Coordinator of the international NGO Harjeet Singh said, “China and other emerging economies are keen to do a deal, but won’t keep making concessions if rich countries don’t keep their climate promises. China has shown more ambition on slashing its carbon emissions than most other countries. It’s time for rich nations to end this blame game, and provide the money and green technology needed by poor countries to tackle climate change.”

Asked by The Third Pole if the emission reduction offers now being made were strong enough, Mr Ban replied, “We should be ambitious. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has made it clear that climate change is happening much faster than thought earlier.” Going beyond the global deal possibilities, Mr Ban said it was “encouraging that 118 countries have taken domestic targets. But major polluting countries have to take higher targets.”
The UN chief’s words were echoed by UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, who told delegates at the Momentum of Change initiative launch, “You don’t have to wait for a legally binding agreement” to start domestic actions that would lead to a greener future.

However, the door that would lead to a greener future is closing fast, scientists are warning. Maria van der Hoeven, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), said that countries needed to “change their goals immediately. If we do not act by 2017 we will finish the global carbon bank by 2035.” The IEA has prepared a set of tools to enhance energy security and reduce carbon emissions at the same time, and she urged governments around the world to use the tools. The IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2011 says that for every $1 of investment not spent on reducing emissions in the power sector before 2020 an additional $4.3 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.

Head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Achim Steiner said, “Climate change negotiations must be determined by science and scientific realities, not by political expediency. Science tells us it is imperative for countries to act against climate change. Economics tells us it’s doable. But we’re not doing enough due to politics. We’re not heading in the right direction.” UNEP has recently brought out a report on how the world can bridge the 40 per cent gap between emission reductions dictated by science and the offers made by governments.
Independent scientists also warned that delay in climate decisions will cost more. The world is heading toward an emissions pathway that will take warming to 3.5 degrees Celsius, and far from a cost-optimal pathway to keep warming below two degrees, according to the latest analysis from the Climate Action Tracker, a joint project of Climate Analytics, Ecofys and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “The longer we wait, the less options we will have, the more it will cost, the less likely we are to be able to stay below global warming of 2 degrees Celsius and the bigger threat to the world’s most vulnerable,” said Bill Hare, Director of Climate Analytics.