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Summit push

This article was first published in the South China Morning Post on November 29th 2010 by Julian Hunt. Lord Hunt is vice-president of Globe (Global Legislators for a Balanced Environment), visiting professor at Delft University of Technology, and former director general of the UK Met Office

The range of views on climate change offers some grounds for collaboration, if not a deal at Cancun

In advance of the UN climate summit in Cancun, which begins today, legislators from across the world – from US congressman Bart Gordon to Chinese congressman Wang Guangtao – met in Tianjin this month at Globe International’s climate change symposium. Though the prospect of reaching a comprehensive deal in Mexico is being widely talked down, much progress can still be made; there remains substantial room for optimism.

Last year’s disappointing and confused Copenhagen conference showed the lack of willingness of major countries to establish any meaningful international agreement to deal with the causes and impact of manmade climate change. This might involve only the developed countries reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases, as in the Kyoto Protocol, or could also involve other countries with major emissions.

Neither of these scenarios seems likely to be achieved at Cancun. It now seems that the meeting might just result in a set of statements by countries about what they are doing individually and in various multilateral arrangements – a disappointing re-run of Copenhagen.

However, it needs to be remembered that text in a communique does not reduce emissions in itself – action on the ground does. In this context, there are reasons to be optimistic about recent legislative activity in developing countries. For instance, the Chinese announced at the Globe symposium that they are studying the feasibility of a comprehensive climate change law.

Moreover, if a comprehensive deal isn’t reached at Cancun, the summit still represents a remarkable opportunity for countries to assess the future more realistically, and collaborate on the practical policies that need to be introduced. Cancun offers a stepping stone to secure a truly sustainable global deal next year or beyond.

Under current plans, many industrialising countries will continue to increase their emissions. This is despite the fact that, in most of the major emitting countries, administrative and innovative market mechanisms are offering incentives to industry to use energy more efficiently.

In China, financial rewards for reducing energy use provided by regional governments are leading to substantial improvements in efficiency. These arrangements are evolving into local carbon markets, albeit small-scale and voluntary at this stage. Although the Kyoto Protocol does not apply to the emissions in China and other developing countries, where millions still live in extreme poverty, politicians in these countries nonetheless say that the protocol does provide a policy framework for controlling emissions.

In the United States, the Obama administration is relying on national regulations operated by the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor and limit further emissions from major power plants. As green stimulus measures, such as the investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency, wind down, this work becomes more important.

The US, China and the European Union are also planning to introduce new systems of monitoring greenhouse gas emissions, using remote-sensing and ground-based instrumentation. EU countries have been emphasising low-carbon energy such as wind and nuclear, as well as carbon sequestration, but have not been able to agree on priorities. There is more unanimity in the EU about promoting its policy of carbon trading to motivate industrial efficiency.

Other countries are focusing on preventing the rise of atmospheric greenhouse gases by expanding forestry. This is why some Latin American and EU legislators are considering how natural conservation and preserving biodiversity can be an integral part of climate change policy.

Given this wide range of political, economic and technical approaches to climate change policy, it may be impossible to frame an international agreement that would satisfy all governments, businesses and also civil society groups. However, it should be possible to agree on a range of practical actions to mitigate climate change and deal with its effects on health, business, agriculture and natural disasters.

The rising costs of dealing with these effects, such as coastal defenses, and reducing desertification and urban overheating, mean that preventative actions have to begin now. They must not be delayed until economies grow further, as some influential economists argue.

The legislators at the Globe symposium generally agreed that there are three areas where urgent action is needed most.

First, more information is needed about expected levels of greenhouse gas, global and regional climate risks, and likely impact on countries. Decision-makers need to know more clearly the likely scenarios and reasonable targets. Communities need to be informed so that they can also contribute, as for example farmers do in Mali, by measuring and communicating the changes to local climate and ecology. The best way for improving information exchange is through United Nations agencies.

Second, countries and regions should exchange information about actions they have taken for mitigation and adaptation, as was agreed in principle at Copenhagen. Members of Globe are already exchanging experiences about legislation and its effectiveness in different countries. However, more work is needed to make this a reality, with transfer of know-how to developing countries.

Third, more collaboration is needed in implementing policies. This should build on national, regional or sectoral initiatives, for example in carbon trading, funding adaptation in developing countries, and developing new technologies for global application, such as desalination, plant breeding and genetic engineering of new crops. Also key are social programmes for the millions of people who are likely to be displaced by the effects of desertification, sea-level rise and probably the melting of mountain snows.

For those, such as myself, who believe that global warming is the greatest danger to humanity in the 21st century, it is to be hoped that agreement can be reached in these areas so that we can move nearer towards a comprehensive and effective deal. We cannot afford to see the shambles of Copenhagen repeated in Cancun.

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