On the Road to Copenhagen

Report from the UN Climate Change Conference

Climate change, resource depletion, health, security, economics, and politics are ­inextricably intertwined.

Air pollution in the Valley of Mexico. (Photo: C. Mcnaughton. U. of Hawaii)

We cannot solve inevitable problems by concentrating our efforts only on politics and the economy. The negotiating process on climate change revolves around sessions of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It meets every year to review implementation of the Convention. The COP adopts decisions and resolutions. Successive decisions make up a detailed set of rules for practical and effective ­implementation of the Convention and its provisions.

Over 11,000 participants attended the December 2008 conference in Pozna´n, Poland. This year’s focus, intended to advance international cooperation on a future climate change regime, showed progress on a number of key issues.

“We now have a much clearer sense of where we need to go in designing an outcome which will spell out the commitments of developed countries, the financial support required, and the institutions that will deliver that support as part of the Copenhagen outcome,” said UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Yvo de Boer.

The conference closed with a clear commitment from governments to shift into full negotiating mode in 2009. The goal is to shape an ambitious and effective international response to climate change, to be ratified in Copenhagen in December 2009. The parties agreed that the first draft of a concrete negotiating text would be available at a UNFCCC gathering in Bonn in June 2009.

At Pozna´n, finishing touches were put to the Kyoto Protocol’s Adaptation Fund, with parties agreeing that the Fund would be a legal entity granting direct access to developing countries. Progress was also made on a number of important ongoing issues that are particularly important for developing countries, including adaptation, finance, technology, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and disaster management.

A key event at the Conference was a ministerial roundtable on the shared vision of long-term cooperative action on climate change. Ministers gave a resounding commitment to achieving an ambitious and comprehensive deal that can be ratified by all. The next major UNFCCC gathering will take place from March 29 to April 8, 2009, in Bonn, Germany.

High Level Segment
UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, opened the “High Level Segment” of the conference on 11 December, attended by heads of state and environment ministers from around the world.

“Most of you have noticed, entering this hall, a sculpture of a 10-foot-high ‘wave’ of carbon-dioxide emissions, about to engulf the planet. This is no empty metaphor. We all know the science judging from the evidence presented over the past few years and days; we know the problem is growing worse. Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen: the world is watching.

“The next generation is counting on us; we must not fail. Together, we face two crises: climate change and the global economy. But these crises present us with a great opportunity – an opportunity to address both challenges simultaneously.

“Here in Pozna´n, we have three challenges. First, is a work plan for next year’s negotiations.

“Second, you need to sketch out the critical elements of a long-term vision. We need a basic framework for cooperative action – starting today, not in 2012.

“Third, we must re-commit ourselves to the urgency of our cause. This requires leadership – your leadership.

“Yes, the economic crisis is serious. Yet when it comes to climate change, the stakes are even far higher. The climate crisis affects our potential prosperity and our peoples’ lives, both now and far into the future.”

Differing Opinions
The road to Copenhagen is paved with good intentions. Unfortunately, the reality is that little was actually achieved other than agreement on the groundwork and schedule for negotiations in 2009. The main objective going into the conference appears to have been to ensure that negotiations aren’t derailed entirely by the financial crisis.

Canada performed very poorly, winning the “Fossil of the Day” award, given to countries that block progress at UN climate change negotiations.

According to the CBC, Environment Minister Jim Prentice claimed that Canada was a “constructive force.” He told the ­conference that all major emitters of greenhouse gases must take urgent action on climate change, and said Canada is committed to a “shared vision” for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The CBC quoted him as saying that “shared vision must ensure continued economic growth and sustainable development while reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050.” However, Canada held firm to the government’s previously stated targets, aiming for a 20% reduction of 2006 greenhouse gas levels by 2020 and 60% by 2050.

Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club of Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation stated, “over the past week, Canada has taken a shameful role here. Our country has been singled out as a spoiler. And the Minister’s speeches today did not contain any signal that Canada will do the right thing and commit to the science-based emission targets and scaled-up financing that the world needs to avert dangerous climate change.”

The CBC also reported comments from Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party: “Canada, unfortunately, was about the worst performer here, and that’s saying a lot. That means worse than the United States with the lame-duck Bush administration, still doing what it can to obstruct… The speeches at the end of the session really were tinged with regret, and, from some countries, outright anger that the industrialized countries have been taking their time, coming up with excuses.”

Harnessing an alternative energy source.

The Climate Change Performance Index 2009, an assessment compiled by environmental groups Germanwatch and Climate Action Network Europe, ranked Canada second last in its performance in fighting climate change, ahead of only Saudi Arabia. Their press release stated “At the lower end of the ranking, Saudi Arabia comes in last in 60th, with Canada 59th and the U.S. 58th. Some positive changes in the U.S. on state level move them ahead of Canada. Russia, the U.S. and Canada have done badly due to their emissions trend, emissions level and climate policy. These countries could improve their ranking if they embraced and engaged politically to avoid dangerous climate change.”

The UNFCCC collects statistics on greenhouse gas emissions by the Annex I parties. Between 1990 and 2006, Canada’s emissions increased by 21.7%. If the impact of land use, land use change and forestry is included, the increase jumps to 54.8%, worse than Spain (53.5%), New Zealand (33.0%) and all others and better than only Sweden (110.6%) and Turkey (102.9%).

The mantra rationalizing Canada’s dismal performance appears to be that we dare not harm the economy by undertaking major greenhouse gas reduction initiatives. How­ever, the UK Stern Review on the economics of climate change estimates that if we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equal to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year. Given a wider range of risks and impacts, the damages could rise beyond 20%. In contrast, the costs of mitigating action and adaptation can limit the loss to 1% of global GDP each year.

A recent editorial in Nature, the inter-national weekly journal of science, titled “Danger and Opportunity” stated:

“The response to the financial crisis needs to go beyond the immediate pressures. Policy-makers must seize this moment to solidify the science and innovation required for sustained economic growth. … While innovation is commonly associated with growth, it is now more correctly pinned to survival. That was one conclusion from a meeting convened in Dubai last weekend by the World Economic Forum, a body best known for its annual summit in Davos, Switzerland. It is correct: with an economic crisis of unknown proportions looming, more em­phasis on science and innovation – not less – will be crucial to achieving a sustained recovery.”

A study commissioned by the Pem-bina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation, with modelling by M.K. Jaccard and Associates Inc., found that:

  • Canada’s economy can still grow by almost 20% in the next decade while the country reduces its greenhouse gas pollution to 25% below the 1990 level.
  • Canada will continue to enjoy strong net job growth.
  • Meeting the 25% reduction target requires a significant price on carbon pollution as well as targeted regulations and investments to expand the use of clean technology.
  • By 2020, Canadians will save more than $5.5 billion each year at the gas pump because of more efficient vehicles, more public transit and shorter commutes.

The journal New Scientist recently issued a special report “How our economy is killing the Earth.” It addresses the quandary of an economic system dependent upon growth when growth may no longer be possible and could be toxic to all of us. Our exponential growth will soon hit the barrier of limited resources, making the current financial crisis look comparatively like a tempest in a teapot unless we take drastic measures to make economists and politicians realize just how damaging modern economic theory and practice really are.

The editorial for that report states that it is time to banish the god of growth:

“Imagine an industry that runs out of raw materials. Companies go bust, workers are laid off, families suffer and associated organizations are thrown into turmoil. Eventually governments are forced to take drastic action. Welcome to global banking, brought to its knees by the interruption of its life-blood – the flow of cash.

“In this case, we seem to have been ­fortunate. In the nick of time, governments released reserves that should, with luck, get cash circulating again. But what if they hadn’t been there? There are no reserves of fish, tropical hardwoods, fresh water or metals such as indium, so what are we going to do when supplies of these vital materials dry up?

“We live on a planet with finite resources – that’s no surprise to anyone – so why do we have an economic system in which all that matters is growth? More growth means using more resources.

“If we are to leave any kind of planet to our children, we need an economic system that lets us live within our means.”

A graduate from Royal Military College in Mathematics and Physics, Mr. Alan P. Burke is the President of Orcagis Inc., focussing on zero-defect software development and modelling in the fields of public safety, public health, energy and the environment.
© FrontLine Security 2008