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Race to the future

by Saleemul Huq
For the first time since the UN’s failed summit in Copenhagen, diplomats met at the secretariat of the Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn in April to discuss the way forward. Saleemul Huq of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development assesses the situation. [ By Saleemul Huq ]

After the disaster in Copenhagen in December, attempting to wrap up all important climate issues in a single treaty is no longer realistic. Although a comprehensive treaty would have been good, that chance was missed in Copenhagen. One of the main reasons was that the EU did not prove to be the leader many environmentalists hoped it would be.

Unfortunately, on issues relating to forestry, adaptation to climate change and technology, the Europeans offered substantial funds far too late in the game to turn the dynamics of the talks around. In the end, the initiative resulted in combined pledges by rich nations amounting to $ 30 billion over three years. But had all parties known that such funds would be made available, the summit would probably have led to better results.

The $ 30 billion is now part of the controversial Copenhagen Accord – a memorandum of understanding drafted by a small group of major carbon emitters. It is well understood that this document has to be brought in line with earlier UN agreements. The summit did not agree on the Accord, after all, but only took note of it. The controversy over it is harmful. While the USA is trying to bind all countries to this single document alone, Bolivia is organising meetings of anti-Accord governments.

Climate change is still an urgent matter, of course. It is essential to pick up the pieces fast and do what can be done. Agreements on forestry, adaptation and technology should be easy to achieve, and they would unlock progress. This is a realistic goal for the Cancún summit later this year. The more difficult issues will have to be solved later. They are
– A) whether there will be legally binding reduction targets and
– B) how ambitious those targets will be.

The USA has an important role to play. However, before President Barack Obama can consider legally binding targets, he needs to get legislation passed in the US. The issue is pending in the Senate. If the US accepts binding targets, large emerging economies are likely to follow suit, in particular China and India. However, the US is unlikely to accept ambitious targets, so the political fight is going to stay tough.

Climate change must stay on the agenda whenever political leaders meet. It would be a good thing, for instance, if the G20 moved on climate protection. After all, they are the club of the worst polluters. Since the most vulnerable nations have no bearing on the G20, however, the UN is the only legitimate forum for global agreements.

Of course, the G20 members are vulnerable to climate change themselves. Hurricane Katrina was a devastating example of what may lie ahead if humankind does not mitigate climate change. Nonetheless, the G20 members do not consider their own vulnerability when discussing climate change. They only think in terms of thwarted growth.

It is a pity that the EU missed its leadership chance in Copenhagen. But that does not mean we should give up on it. The international community must stop considering climate issues in terms of economic burdens and instead look to the future. The EU should commit to reducing carbon emissions by 30 % by 2050 unilaterally and unconditionally. That is the right thing to do. So far, it has only committed to 20 %, offering more if other nations assume more responsibility, too. Thus, the EU is still stuck in burden logic. They need to realise that starting the race to the future will pay – not only in political, but also in economic terms.