World leaders, including Xi Jinping, Obama and the Pope, signal change is in the air on attitudes to global warming

Recent announcements by China, India, the US and the pope reveal a growing global will to address the problem, raising hope for a landmark treaty

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 September, 2015, 3:50pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 September, 2015, 3:50pm

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon held a mini global warming summit on Sunday with world leaders in New York. The meeting came as momentum is building for a landmark new climate change treaty to be finalised in Paris in December.

The negotiations have been catalysed by major announcements in recent days by three of the world’s largest economies: China, India and the United States. Most prominently, President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama released on Friday a common vision for securing a new global climate treaty in December underpinned by a pledge that China will launch in 2017 a national carbon emissions trading system covering power generation, steel, cement and other key industrial sectors.

This aligns with Obama’s recent decision to launch a US clean power plan, the most comprehensive US action to tackle global warming to date. It will set environmental rules and regulations to cut pollution from power plants (which account for some 40 per cent of US emissions of carbon dioxide) in an attempt to reduce such US emissions by 32 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.

The US-China announcement came on the same day Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his country will increase renewable energy output fivefold by 2020, as part of a new comprehensive climate plan. These moves coincided with the historic visit to the US by Pope Francis, during which he launched a collective call for action on climate change. This follows his papal encyclical, which warned of “unprecedented destruction of ecosystems” and “serious consequences” if humanity fails to act on global warming.

The increased international resolve on climate change will be welcomed by many across the world, and comes during a period when it may seem hard not to be pessimistic about the global battle to tackle global warming. These developments show we may be reaching a point when the international tide decisively turns on tackling climate change.

To be sure, much more needs to be done. But if one steps back and examines what is happening at national and subnational levels, a relatively positive picture is emerging.

Domestic laws and regulations to address global warming are being passed at an increasing rate – in stark contrast to the progress in recent years in international negotiations. A report in May by the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics revealed there are more than 800 climate change laws and policies in places across the world, rising from 54 in 1997. Indeed, since 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was agreed, the number of climate laws and policies has doubled every five years.

Many are concluding it is in their national interest to reduce emissions by embracing low-carbon growth and development, and to better prepare for the impact of climate change

This is potentially game changing and reflects developments in every continent. Indeed, it is mainly developing countries, which will provide the motor of global economic growth in future, that are leading this drive. Many are concluding it is in their national interest to reduce emissions by embracing low-carbon growth and development, and to better prepare for the impact of climate change.

It follows, therefore, that advancing domestic climate legislation and regulations, and experiencing the co-benefits of reducing emissions, are crucial in creating the political conditions for a global agreement. Domestic laws give clear signals about direction of policy, reducing uncertainty, particularly for the private sector.

With negotiations on a post-2020 comprehensive deal scheduled to conclude in December, an agreement is more likely to be reached with domestic frameworks in place in key countries. Sound domestic actions enhance the prospects of international action, and better international prospects enhance domestic actions.

However, there is a danger that some countries might lower their long-term ambitions. This would be ill-timed. Indeed, Obama, Xi, Modi and the pope have shown that now is the right time to invest more in tackling global warming, to expedite conditions for a comprehensive new treaty.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics