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Assume responsibility

by Hans Dembowski
Workers build a concentrated solar power plant in Morocco

Workers build a concentrated solar power plant in Morocco

The delegations from the EU did a good job at the climate summit in Durban. It was quite an achievement to get the the USA, China and other major polluters to accept binding rules on reducing carbon emissions by 2020 or perhaps a bit earlier. As the summit dragged on in night sessions long after its scheduled end, more was not to be had. And still the result is disappointing. Binding rules will not apply soon enough. They are to be written by 2015 and come into force by 2020 at the latest. So we are likely to get eight more years of business as usual – which humankind cannot afford.

Science tells us that humanity’s carbon emissions have to peak in the next few years if global warming is to be limited to two degrees Celsius on average. Otherwise, the impacts will no longer be manageable. The faster emissions rise, the sooner they will have to peak. And they are rising fast. Moreover, recent studies show that global warming is worse than researchers predicted. So we know today that whatever happens in 2020 will be too little too late. What a verdict eight years in advance!

No doubt, the US administration knows what is at stake. President Barack Obama has spoken of “a planet in peril” often enough. But his hands are tied by powerful science deniers in the US Congress. These self-proclaimed patriots are casting a bad light on their nation and diminishing its leadership in the international community.

No doubt, the Chinese leadership knows what is at stake. Though it is investing massively in renewable energies, it refuses to make binding commitments soon. Its argument that the People’s Republic is still poor and cannot afford the kind of limits rich nations must accept is beginning to ring hollow. Per capita, the Chinese are now emitting more than six tons of carbon per year – more than three times the allowable average if every person on Earth was to have the same carbon budget. Hiding behind India (a little more than one ton per year and person) does noch make China’s rhetoric more convincing. Yes, Germany’s figure of nine tons is even higher. But Europe has accepted legally binding limits, and nobody ever said China’s targets could not be softer. China is a huge nation of 1,3 billion people, more than twice the population of the EU. Absolute numbers matter too, and are fast compensating the historic failings of then less populous western nations.

No doubt, the governments of Japan and Russia know what is at stake. Why else did their countries make reduction commitments in Kyoto in 1997? Now they say they cannot afford to reduce emissions unless everyone else does so too. Perhaps they hope that the economic crisis the world is struggling with will somehow pass, and they plan to reconsider climate issues once things are normal again. Such thinking would be completely misguided. What is normal is climate change, and it cannot be undone.

The technologies for sustainable energy infrastructures are known. The good news is that this sector is growing fast even without a binding global treaty. But to prevent disaster, more needs to be done. Policymakers must act at the national level – and that is the most convincing way of putting international pressure on those who are still unwilling to assume responsibility.


From this edition on, D+C/E+Z is published on behalf of ENGAGEMENT ­GLOBAL, a new German agency designed to support activism in civil society and at the municipal level. The editorial staff is looking forward to good cooperation.