Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 6 August 2007

UN debates climate change

Last week the United Nations held its first ever General Assembly debate on climate change, marking its rapid rise in the global agenda.   Everyone agreed the problem is real and serious, but there are wide differences on how to tackle this crisis.


Climate change climbed another rung up the global agenda last week when the United Nations General Assembly held its first ever plenary debate in New York on “Climate Change as a Global Challenge.” 

Many speakers stressed that climate change has emerged as the major environment crisis of our times, but it must be dealt with in the context of development. 

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said climate change was finally receiving the very highest attention that it merited.  The Arctic was warming fast, threatening the region’s people and ecosystems.  It also imperiled low-lying islands and coastal cities half a world away, while glaciers retreated and water supplies were put at risk. 

For countries in dry lands, climate change will worsen desertification, drought and food insecurity, he said, warning: “We cannot go this way for long.  We cannot continue with business as usual.  The time has come for decisive action on a global scale.”

“Climate change has many aspects, but it is fundamentally a development issue,” said General Assembly President, Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa. “What is at stake is the fate and well-being of our planet.”

The General Assembly debate is the start of a series of landmark meetings, especially a UN climate change event on 24 September to be attended by heads of government in New York, and a meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Bali on 3-14 December.

The UN wants to continue as the central venue for international negotiations and agreements on climate change issues.  This is somewhat threatened by an initiative by United States President George Bush to set up an alternative framework for “top emitting countries.”  The US is a party to the UNFCC but not to its Kyoto Protocol.  

Under the Kyoto Protocol, developed countries committed to reduce their Greenhouse Gas emissions, with targets up to only 2012.  Negotiations will start soon on a post-2012 agreement.  A major question is whether developing countries will also have to commit to reducing emissions in the new deal.

Harvard University scientist John Holdren said that climate disruptions (due to carbon dioxide emissions) were already causing serious harm, including increased floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires and severe tropical storms. 

The question is to avoid catastrophic interference.  There will be a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius even if the Greenhouse gas concentration can now be stabilized. 

There is chance of reaching a “tipping point” if the rise is above 2 degrees.   To avoid that, emissions must peak by 2015 and fall after that.

The scale of the problem is large because 80% of energy use is from burning fossil fuels.  In 2005 CO2 global emissions totaled 28 billion tons.  Tropical deforestation accounted for 4 to 12 tons of CO2 a year.  Neither the energy system nor the drivers of the problem can be changed easily.

Sir Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics said if we do nothing, there could be at least a 5% loss of world national income due to climate change. Timely action could drastically reduce that risk, at a cost of 1% of GDP.  The cost of timely action is much less than the cost of inaction. 

During the debate, the Group of 77 and China (representing developing countries) highlighted many problems preventing a solution, and made an eight-point demand on the developed countries.

The rich countries should meet their commitments to reduce their Greenhouse Gas emissions, and should provide funds and transfer technology to developing countries so they can better adapt to the effects of climate change, said the G77.

Many developing countries spoke on how climate change would affect them and asked for quick and fair solutions.

“It is unfortunate that the industrialized countries are responsible for the bulk of emissions but the poorer nations which did nothing to cause the problem are most exposed to its effects,” said Malaysia, which also called on the rich countries to transfer climate-friendly technology to developing countries.

In a hard-hitting statement, India said that any agreement on climate change should not place new conditions on developing countries’ growth. Equity would mean that till excessive amounts of gasses have been soaked up, the developed countries ought to be held down to less than a per capita equal share. 

China said the “luxury emissions” of rich countries should be restricted while the “emissions of subsistence” and “development emissions” of poor countries should be accommodated.

India, China and Brazil said that in a new post 2012 agreement, the developed countries should make further emission-reduction commitments, but the time was not yet ripe for developing countries to commit themselves to quantitative targets.  However the developing countries could formulate national plans to combat climate change.

Many African and Caribbean countries stressed they were already suffering the effects of climate change and called for urgent and effective action immediately.

There were differences of views among developed countries. The European Union was the most forthcoming, proposing global targets to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees centigrade and to cut global emissions by 50% by 2020 (compared to the 1990 level).

The EU said that developed countries should collectively reduce their emissions by 30% by 2020 and by 60-80 per cent by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels). In Japan’s view, global emissions should be cut by half by 2050.

However the United States did not give any targets, neither did it state its interest in joining a new UN deal for the post-2012 period.  It confirmed that President Bush would convene a meeting of leading economies to establish a framework that would complement the UN process.

The US, Japan and Australia wanted developing countries (at least the leading ones) to undertake binding commitments in a new agreement, while the EU was more ambivalent about this.

The General Assembly debate has thus kicked off the global discussion on what to do about climate change, especially on negotiating a new phase of commitments to take effect after 2012.

The talks on this topic will be complex and difficult, as so much is at stake, environmentally, economically and socially.