Guiding Principles Needed: Towards A Global Strategy For Climate Change

Ever since I attended the Kyoto Conference on Climate Change in 1997, I have been fascinated by the development of the international debate on this issue. There are few forces that can literally reshape the global landscape as climate change can. Rising sea levels, melting glaciers, lakes that are drying up and rainforests that become savannahs are just some of the changes that are wrought by climate change.

These dramatic changes are already visible, but the impacts are expected to become increasingly more severe. Global warming not only has environmental consequences, but also serious social, economic and even security implications, making it an all-encompassing threat.

Yet, despite the scientific findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that climate change is occurring and is certainly caused by human activities, the international response to the problem has been far from sufficient. Overcoming this vast inertia in order to take action on climate change will require significant political and economic efforts, starting with Heads of State and Government and extending to the grassroots level.

Fortunately, climate change has re-emerged on the international political agenda. Just like ten years ago when the Kyoto Conference was held, more people, more businesses and more Governments -- local and national -- are recognizing climate change as a priority issue. The media has also stepped up its reporting on climate change, and the recent launches of the IPCC reports attracted more than double the attention the last IPCC assessment garnered five years ago.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has made climate change one of his main priorities and has said that it is urgent for countries to agree on a strong framework by 2010 to ensure that there is no gap between the end of the Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period in 2012 and the entry into force of a future regime. The problem is that there are vast hurdles that must be overcome before any agreement is reached. The emissions of greenhouse gases causing climate change are rising -- not falling -- and many countries have indicated that they are not ready to sacrifice their national economic interests without guarantees that everyone will be making similar efforts.

But there are other reasons for mistrust as well: most of the world's 1.2 billion people who survive on $1 a day or less live in developing countries that have had little to do with causing the problem of climate change. There are many who ask, "Why then should poorer countries be constrained in their development efforts when people in industrialized countries lead comfortable, high-consumption lifestyles?" This is not a new question -- and it was fundamentally addressed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that produced "Agenda 21", the universally agreed upon blueprint for sustainable development. Member States agreed that all people and countries had the right to develop, but that development should incorporate a balance of economic, social and environmental concerns. It was also recognized that industrialized countries needed to assist developing nations with the necessary resources and technologies needed for sustainable development.

The IPCC showed us there are solutions that are not economically prohibitive to effectively address climate change. But we need the collective will of all countries to embark on implementing these solutions. We need to build the trust between people quickly before it is either too late or too expensive to act. The cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of action. No matter what we do, the earth's temperature will continue to rise for years to come. The IPCC predicts that the average warming would likely be in the range of 2º to 4.5º Celsius, with the best estimate of 3º C, or 5.4º F, by 2100. The longer we wait to act, the greater the build-up in greenhouse gases, and the result will be a higher rate of warming. Conversely, by acting aggressively now, according to the IPCC reports, we can limit the rate of climate change to a more manageable level.

The United Nations Conference on Climate Change, to be held in Bali, Indonesia in December 2007, will be critical in the development of a long-term global response to climate change. Bali must be the place where countries begin negotiating on a global strategy that everyone can endorse and implement. But before we get to Bali, we need to develop some guiding principles that can help bring all relevant aspects of the problem together. For instance, we need to recognize that industrialized countries will have to take the lead on cutting emissions and that developing countries will have to be engaged in pursuing low-emissions development strategies. It must be recognized also that developing countries should benefit from incentives to limit emissions and assistance for adaptation. All of these could be tied together by a strengthened carbon market, which offers an opportunity to reduce the cost of emissions reduction, and to mobilize funds.

Stronger public-private partnerships, accelerated technological innovation and a renewed commitment to make existing renewable technologies economically viable will play a large role in lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing demand for energy will require an investment of $20 trillion in energy infrastructure through 2030. The decision to use cleaner, more energy-efficient technologies now could save lives and money in the long run.
The United Nations will play its part to address the problem by understanding the science through the IPCC reports, providing a forum for forging global agreements, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, and adopting new and innovative ideas and responses, such as the Clean Development Mechanism and carbon trading markets. The United Nations system, through its agencies that promote development, is working to ensure that responding to climate change does not adversely impact programmes to reduce poverty, but will, in fact, enhance this effort.

It is one thing to suggest ways for the world to deal with climate change and quite another to implement them at home. To lead by example, the United Nations itself is embarking upon a new greening initiative to make its own operations more climate-friendly. The Organization is looking at its plans to renovate its 55-year-old headquarters to see whether it can reduce its present energy use by more than 30 per cent, along with other energy efficiency, water conservation and waste recycling measures.

But it will take more than Governments or organizations to deal with climate change. It will take individuals like you and me to tackle this problem in our own lives, so that all people, now and in the future, will be able to avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change.