No need to wait for governments in fighting to stop climate change

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 June, 2015, 10:47am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 November, 2015, 2:53pm

Climate change politics are in the news again. The G7 Summit Declaration emerging from Bavaria earlier this week signaled once more purposeful intent to address climate change. This affirmation of “strong determination” from the world’s leading industrial economies comes six months away from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting scheduled for Paris in December.

Many regard the Paris gathering as crucial in addressing what President Barack Obama has called the single most important issue defining the twenty-first century. The event is widely considered a last chance to replace the UNFCC’s 1997 Kyoto Protocol, due to expire in 2020.

That agreement supposedly committed its industrial nation signatories to targeted reductions in manmade greenhouse gas emissions sufficient to avoid catastrophic global warming.

In their Summit Declaration, the G7 nations subscribed to decarbonisation of the global economy by 2100 and the much touted 2 degrees centigrade limit in average temperature rises, considered by many scientists the maximum level that avoids unsustainable warming.

Experts claim that the individually declared commitments of the G7 countries – their so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – are insufficient to meet the targets.

This week the United Nations is holding meetings in Bonn to hammer out the text of a Paris agreement. The initial 40 page draft of a treaty, replete with alternative formulations, was drawn up in Peru in December 2014, and expanded to 80 pages at a February 2015 gathering in Geneva.

These cumbersome, flawed negotiations have been characterised by Segolene Royal, France’s environment minister, as unwieldy and procedurally unsuited to effective action on climate change. The minister is articulating widely held frustration with a repeated, drawn-out process that periodically captures cliff-hanging headlines, sometimes delivers halting progress, but always seems to leave the real prize aside as tomorrow’s aspiration.

Despite efforts to revise the rigidities of the Kyoto Protocol with a more flexible, broader-based approach emphasising coordination over coercion, efforts to hammer out legally binding obligations are proving exceedingly challenging. There are many reasons for this that cannot be explored here.

But the politics surrounding the climate change debate may be changing in ways that give grounds for optimism.

An awakening public in many parts of the world is pressing politicians at the national level to do the right thing. More than a quarter of a million souls took to the streets in New York to demand action on the occasion of a climate change summit in September last year. Tens of thousands more followed suit in other places.

Fossil fuel subsidies have been falling of late in some emerging economies. The costs of renewables – notably solar and wind turbines – have also come down. Green finance is more widely available. A growing number of governments are not waiting for elusive international deals, but acting to reduce emissions in ways that may not always be reflected in INDCs.

More serious thought and action are emerging on carbon pricing – considered by many indispensable to effective control of climatic warming. Some 40 countries now pursue one form or another of carbon pricing. Business is engaging more actively. Over 1,000 corporations have called for carbon pricing.

Coal is coming under greater pressure than before. The divestment movement, contentious as it may be both in terms of economic logic and effectiveness is starting to take its toll. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the largest globally, has just announced that it is divesting of coal. A number of other funds and institutional investors are acting similarly.

Recent work by the International Monetary Fund estimates that the ill-effects of fossil fuel consumption amount to over 6 per cent of global output. Well over half of those effects manifest themselves in the first instance as local pollution. Addressing local pollution has direct local benefits and also mitigates warming. Why wait then for elusive international agreements?

Not enough is being done to combat climate change if we believe the mainstream science. But dithering leaders who find international solidarity easy to voice but hard to achieve need not be the destruction of us all.


Patrick Low is vice-president of research at Fung Global Institute