UN Climate Summit - What's at stake?

Climate Summit

Today, representatives from around the world are meeting in New York to start a one year long process around negotiations for a new climate treaty. The treaty is due by the end of 2015. This is probably the last chance for a binding agreement to be implemented and have an actual impact on global emissions. We are already committed to 2-3 degrees warming according to most experts. The issue now is trying to avoid a 4 or 6 degrees warmer world by 2100. Which is critical of course since we don't even know if such a world could host 7-10 billion people. From the period during which humans first developed agriculture until now we have only experienced +/- 1 degree change. And think about this, if you have a child in Sweden today with a life expectancy of 86 years (average for men is 82 and women 84), that child will experience 2100.  

Source: Collage based on UN, NASA, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA)

The main obstacle to a binding treaty is of course the division between richer and poorer nations on how to proceed, specifically which countries ought to bear most of the burden? This is fundamentally a international justice issue since most of the cumulative carbon emissions and massive resource use originates from the wealthiest people on the planet (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Historical cumulative carbon emissions by country
rich nations have largest emissions
Source: global carbon project
Trying to get governments, especially the US, EU and China, to commit to substantial carbon emission reductions will be very difficult as such action definitely will have a direct impact on the their economies i.e. initially costly but beneficial in the long-term. Professor in physics Chris Williams says "a solution to the climate crisis requires a restructuring of the global economy, but when the last opportunity to do so came after the 2008-09 financial crisis, wold leaders saved the banks instead" (The Real News)

Aware of the tension between economic growth and carbon emission reductions many organisations have this time around adapted their material to match the language of economics, making cost-benefit analyses of adopting "green" technologies etc. One example is the new report called "The new climate economy" of which the Swedish minster of Environment, Lena Ek, was an initiator. The key message of the report is basically that we can have economic growth and save the environment too. My guess is that it's a political attempt to get more nations aboard signing a binding treaty. So the intent is good and probably smart but it depends on what kind of growth western nations are asking for - material or knowledge based? Another example is a recent Oxfam report stating that climate-related disasters (e.g. droughts, extreme temperatures, wildfires, storms, floods) have cost the world almost 500 billion dollars since 2010. To put numbers on losses in natural and social capital have thus become a new standard practice. And will perhaps lead to more action from politicians. In any case, it will be interesting to see what 2014-2015 will bring in terms of climate debate, demonstrations, treaty and much more. I'm hoping that talks will go beyond arguments about carbon markets and blame games. Civil society organizations and businesses attending the conference play an important role in reminding government officials that what is good for the planet, is also good for the people and for business.


Out of the ashes into the fire

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