TWN Briefings for WSSD No.15

Climate Change: Update on Situation and Comment on WSSD Text

By Yin Shao Loong

Climate change is perhaps the major global environment problem.  In the WSSD Draft Implementation Plan, the issue is dealt with in paras 36, 36 (a-e).

Climate Change: Climate change, or more precisely global warming, presents us with a vast problem: the massive biophysical degradation inflicted by industrialization and many of the gases released in the process are changing the chemistry of the climate such that more of the energy flowing from the sun is being trapped in earth’s climate system, thus leading to rising temperatures.

Greenhouse gases: This ‘greenhouse effect’ is associated with the increased release of infrared radiation-absorbing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the last 150 years. Carbon dioxide is produced from the combustion of fossil fuels and the consumption of forests for energy. Methane and nitrous oxide are emitted from agricultural activities, changes in land use, mining and other sources. Halocarbons (HFCs, CFCs, PFCs) and long-lived gases such as sulfur hexaflouride are released by industrial processes.

Natural Impacts: The change in climate these gases promote are predicted to lead to a 1.4 to 5.8 C temperature rise by 2100. By then the mean sea level could rise by 9 - 88 cm, leading to floods. Precipitation may be less frequent but more intense, with the likelihood of more extreme events. Climatic zones could shift to the poles and to higher altitudes, affecting many ecosystems. Many species could decline or become extinct.

Human Impacts: Developing countries, and the poor in all countries, are expected to be the most severely affected. Certain regions already at risk may suffer food security crises. Water resources will face further pressure from new precipitation patterns. Dwellings and other infrastructure could be damaged by extreme events. New health risks are likely to emerge and present ones may have a wider area of effect. Economic activities will surely suffer.

What can be done? Stabilise the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at a safe level that does not threaten dangerous climate change, and reducing the risk of societies and ecosystems to the impacts of climate change.

What is being done at the UN: Facing not only an accursed share of solar radiation, the world also faces an intractability of political will. The principal multilateral instrument established to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (as a step towards stabilization) is the Kyoto Protocol, finalized in Marrakech in 2001. An instrument of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Protocol commits developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5% compared to 1990 levels by 2008-2012.

In order to come into effect the Protocol requires ratification by 55 countries as well as countries representing 55% of developed country emissions at 1990 levels. Therefore the participation of the biggest emitting countries is crucial, not only to the success of the Protocol, but for a multilateral approach to the protection of the climate.

Conflict: In 2001 the US, under the Bush administration, declared that it would not ratify the Protocol and abstained from negotiations. It’s lifestyle and political economy were not up for negotiation.

Australia and Canada, two major emitters, followed suit this year. Both had effectively negotiated the Protocol in bad faith, pushing for concessions which have compromised effectiveness in order to benefit ‘investor certainty’. Australia cited the US as an example to follow and Canada stalled by deferring indefinitely.

On the flip side, major developed countries such as the EU and Japan have both ratified the Protocol within the last few months. However, more countries within the developed bloc need to ratify in order to make climate change mitigation a political success at the multilateral level. Following that, more comprehensive targets for greenhouse gas emission need to be set as science improves, bearing in mind the stipulation of the UNFCCC that following the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities the Convention places the onus for action on developed countries, which allows developing countries to place their attention on more immediate needs of development and climate change risk reduction.

Comment on the Draft Plan of Implementation for the WSSD: Paragraph 36, the preamble to the main section on climate change which makes specific reference to the Kyoto Protocol is bracketed and bolded. This has been done by countries not intending to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. In the final two COPs of the Protocol negotiation the US made it clear that whilst it would not be ratifying the Protocol it would nonetheless not interfere in the negotiations. A similar principle should be upheld here and parties wishing to endorse the Protocol, which is an essential contribution to sustainable development, should not be held back.

Furthermore, the preamble is a specific reference to the already existing United Nations Millennium Declaration in which ‘heads of State and Government resolved to make every effort to ensure the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, preferably by the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 2002, and to embark on the required reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases’.

The preamble text should be left unaltered with no brackets. Any of the few states in disagreement should register this in a footnote.

Further action: At COP8 of the UNFCCC in Delhi this October efforts should be focused on reducing risk of developing countries to climate change through, inter alia, disaster relief and management, building resilience and reducing vulnerability and enhancing capacity.