Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 1 December 2008

Hopes and fears as climate talks resume

Although combating terrorism and economic crisis are hogging the news these days, climate change is still the most important medium-term threat.  This week, global talks resume on how to tackle this climate crisis.


Today, talks on how to deal with climate change resume at the Polish town of Poznan.

Thousands of government officials and environment and development groups have converged here to grapple with the difficult issues of which countries have to take what actions to ensure the climate crisis gets under control in time.

In recent days, the news headlines have been dominated by terrorism (exemplified by the horrific shootings and bombings in Mumbai last week) and by the financial crisis which is evolving into the deepest global recession since the 1930s Great Depression.

These are indeed the most immediately urgent issues.  However, in the medium and long run, climate change is the gravest crisis facing humanity, as our very physical survival is now threatened by the climatic effects of carbon dioxide emissions.

The climate talks last December launched the Bali Action Plan, which commits governments to conclude a deal by the end of 2009 on mitigation (actions to avoid and reduce emissions), adaptation (actions to deal with effects of climate change), finance and technology (the means by which developing countries are to be assisted by developed countries to take action).

The next fortnight’s talks in Poznan takes place under the shadow of the global financial crisis.  It has a mainly negative aspect as governments are so preoccupied with the disastrous economic situation and are spending so much money to counter it that they are tempted to shelve actions on climate change.

But it has positive aspects too.  The trillions of dollars spent by the United States and European countries to bail out their banks show that if there is a serious enough cause (in this case, saving the economic system), the governments can come up with the funds.

There is thus little excuse for the developed countries not to provide funds and technology in large quantities to developing countries to help them undertake the technological and organizational revolution required to address climate change.

The United States’ President-elect Barrack Obama has also announced he will launch a large economic stimulus package that includes spending on actions to counter climate change, such as investments in renewable energy and energy-saving technology.

Governments around the world should adopt a similar strategy. As they plan extra budgets to boost their flagging economies, they should allocate big amounts for climate-related mitigation and adaptation actions.

Unless there is a turnaround in public thinking and behaviour, and in government and private-sector spending in favour of measures that combat climate change, the world will soon face a catastrophic situation, with rising temperatures and sea levels, melting of glaciers and Arctic icesheets, floods, water shortages and falling agricultural productivity.                .  

At the Poznan talks, there will be references to the failure of many developed countries to take sufficient action, as Greenhouse Gas emissions have continued to rise in many countries (such as the United States, Canada, Japan).

Neither have the developed countries met their commitments on financial and technology transfers to developing countries.

The Group of 77 and China, the umbrella body of developing countries, have tabled two detailed proposals to establish a financial architecture and a technology transfer mechanism within the UNFCCC.

The proposals are aimed at getting developed countries to implement their finance and technology transfer commitments.

If there is no positive response to their proposals, the developing countries will be most disappointed at Poznan and the atmosphere will be soured.

The developed countries meanwhile have their own priorities.  Japan has issued a paper stating that many developing countries must commit themselves to take targets for reducing emissions or improving energy efficiency. 

In previous rounds of the talks, the United States and the European Union have made a similar demand. Among the developing countries they are targeting are China, India, Brazil and the more industrialized Asean countries.

However, the developing countries are refusing to be picked out or to be “differentiated”.  They point out that developed countries are historically responsible for most of the Greenhouse Gases in the atmosphere and that they should therefore be the only ones to undertake binding commitments to reduce emissions.

The developing countries also point to the inadequate actions of the developed countries so far, and insist that in the next few years the focus of the UNFCCC should be to get the rich countries to fully implement their obligations.

The impasse between North and South has been blocking progress at the talks so far.  Many are hoping that the election of Barrack Obama will help break the impasse as the United States under President George Bush has been a major stumbling block at the talks.

At Poznan, the US will still be represented by the Bush administration, so few expect any official change of line.  But many representatives of the Obama team and of the Congress will be present, and many people are hoping to see some positive “smoke signals” from this shadow US delegation.