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Grasp the opportunity of crisis

by Saleemul Huq
Global economic turmoil has dominated the headlines in recent weeks. Some environmentalists worry that bail-out programmes for financial-sector companies and stimulus packages are crowding out climate protection from multilateral policymaking. Saleemul Huq of the International Institute for Environment and Development does not agree. [ By Saleemul Huq ]

There are many reasons to worry about the future of our planet’s climate – and how rising temperatures will affect humankind and nature. The recent economic crisis, however, is not one of them. It is unlikely to compound an environmental problem that has been in the making ever since the industrial revolution took off in Europe in the late 18th century and that has been becoming ever more apparent in the past 30 years. Indeed, the economic challenges should be considered an opportunity.

At first sight, it is certainly irritating to see the governments of rich nations hurry to the rescue of car manufacturers. Individualised transport is an important source of greenhouse gases, and the automobile industry certainly does not have a track record of over-arching environmental awareness. However, rescuing the likes of Ford, General Motors or Opel, GM’s German subsidiary, can – and must – go along with stringent rules to improve fuel-efficiency and reduce emissions. In the USA, that is already happening.

Moreover, there is reason to believe that the carmakers themselves have finally understood the sign of the times. After all, one cause of their current malaise is that consumers have been turning away from gas-guzzling giants because of high oil prices. The SUV is a thing of the past; hybrid cars and other innovations are what the future will bring.

It is true that the Kyoto Protocol of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) did not deliver what it was supposed to. The rich world did not live up to its commitments to reduce carbon emissions. But a crucial part of the problem was that the USA, the world’s richest, most powerful and most polluting country, never ratified the protocol. Intransigence in Washington has cost humanity a decade.

It does not make sense, however, to look backwards in bitterness at a time when action is urgently needed. The new administration in Washington has changed tack. President Barack Obama is serious about introducing a cap-and-trade scheme on carbon emissions as was evident in his recent budget proposal.

With China and the USA aboard, the UNFCCC Conference of Parties in Copenhagen in December is likely to result in something much stronger than the Kyoto Protocol. While it is true that Chinese and Indian leaders resent rich-world politicians who lecture them about the need to act, the governments in Beijing and – perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent – in Delhi are also hearing voices from least-developed countries. And those voices are telling them that they have a right to develop, but not a right to pollute. Moreover, both China and India know the consequences of freak weather – storms, floods, draughts – only too well.

The stand of China and India is clear. Unless the rich nations help them adapt better and cleaner technologies, they will continue to use their domestic coal as relatively cheap sources of energy, an approach that contributes to climate change. That negotiation position is only fair. The countries that started climate change in the first place will have to pay.

Action is needed, no doubt. And interesting proposals are on the table, as the UNFCCC Conference of Parties showed in Poznan at the end of last year. There are several ways for humanity to generate the tens of billions of dollars needed every year for adapting to climate change on top of the vastly larger sums needed to mitigate the phenomenon.

Investing in infrastructure is a well-established way of stimulating the economy. The world needs new, climate-friendly infrastructures. All told, it may yet prove an opportunity that policymakers worldwide are learning to question and re-assess long-established economic worldviews at the same time that they have to find new approaches to energy and technology.