Very different global rules are needed for human wellbeing
Averting climate change does not need emission reduction pledges, timetables and a common legal framework.
Climate governance cannot be considered only in terms of environmental damage because it is now a part of the economic debate around the competition for scarce resources. The atmosphere is a strategic resource needed for the establishment of infrastructure to enable economic growth, and framing the issue as a response to international emission reduction commitments has only pitted old against new emitters, and led to inconclusive debate on the rules and architecture of a long term climate regime.
It has now become clear that international cooperation based on multilateral agreements around long-term issues, like climate change, is different to sectoral issues like the ozone problem, because alternative patterns and processes in the human use of nature in developed and developing countries result in trade-offs for socio-economic systems that are very different to those focusing only on environmental systems. Therefore, the basic assumptions of global environmental sustainability that were laid out forty years ago no longer hold for two reasons.
First, this common understanding was based on the historical responsibility of developed countries for causing the pollution – they would do whatever has to be done and support developing countries through provision of financial resources and technology. This has not happened reflecting the lack of political support for modification of longer term trends.
Greenhouse gas emissions are driven ultimately by consumption. In developed countries, while industrial emissions have remained steady since 1990, over two-thirds of carbon dioxide emissions are now coming from the services, households and travel sectors, they account for more than half the increase in global emissions since 2005, and it is expected that emissions from transportation (largely for leisure) will exceed half of global emissions in 2050. Public opinion in developed countries is clear that their “way of life is not up for negotiation”.
Developed countries are seeking to maintain their energy use per capita. Global attention is sought to be focused on the increasing emissions from China and India, where three quarters of the electricity generated goes for industrial production and any reduction in emissions will have a direct impact on economic growth and eradication of poverty, unlike in developed countries where consumption by households’ accounts for two-thirds of the electricity generated, and reductions will impact only on (wasteful) lifestyles. Moreover, while the major share of emissions in developing countries is from food production, mobility (for leisure) has the largest share in emissions of developed countries. As developing countries still have to build their infrastructure and raise standards of living they need carbon space for it, and the global leaders should really discuss how this economic growth can take place in an environmentally sustainable manner.
Second, at the same time developing countries must recognize that the context in which sustainability is being discussed at the multilateral level has changed since the Climate Convention was negotiated in 1992. In 2005, for the first time since the dawning of the industrial age, developing countries accounted for more than half of global GDP at purchasing-power-parity terms. Their growth prospects suggest that the challenge lies in devising national strategies for development of infrastructure necessary for sustained growth that will also move to a low carbon economy and society. Announcements by developing countries at Copenhagen to change the trajectory of their growth amount to 5 Gt. which is more than the 4 Gt. reduction mitigation commitments of the developed countries, and is a step in the right direction.
The most recent data from the UN shows that developed countries have not decoupled emissions from growth – aggregate GHG emissions increased 4.2 % in the period 2009-2010. Moreover, despite the increase in emissions in developing countries the gap in per capita emissions has narrowed by just one-third. The per capita generation of electricity in India is one-fifteenth that of the United States and worldwide 1.6 billion people lack access to electricity. The current framework ignores the fact that energy and ecological services are directly related to human well being.
Developing countries must now set the sustainable development agenda, because in the coming years they will be making increasing demands on ecological resources, as they consume vast quantities of natural resources for infrastructure, urbanization and food security. For example, national shares of a global carbon budget, will safeguard the ecological health of the planet, ensure policy space for developing countries to eradicate poverty and focus on the transformation of the world economy and human activity, leading to patterns of resource use that are common for all countries.
Current research trends on how to meet global challenges also focus on societal dynamics as both the root of environmental problems and the potential solution to them. Environmental problems are no longer defined as discrete problems, but are increasingly being understood as symptoms of a particular development path. The global climate policy issue is that without developed countries sharply reducing their emissions immediately other countries cannot get their fair share of the carbon budget for eradication of poverty.
The global community must now ask a very different set of questions, instead of the current narrow focus on mitigation, adaptation and burden sharing. They would, for example, need to identify which longer term trends should be modified, and the best way of doing so at the national level. At the international level, they would need to lay out a time-table for joint research and development of new technologies, as well as mechanisms for their transfer, to meet the scale and speed of the response. In each of these areas developing countries should also agree to take actions as part of their common but differentiated responsibilities, and equity would then be redefined as patterns of resource use that can in principle be adopted by all countries.
The deliberations in the annual meetings should really be seen as an opportunity to discuss options for making the societal transformation to achieve sustainable development because emissions, standards of living and global ecological limits are inter-linked.
* ex-Director UNFCCC.