Climate change: What are we waiting for?

The debate is over and the threat is real. Without firm international comittement to stem the climate change, the cost will not be measured financially, but in lives
Hilary Benn MP

Climate change is the ultimate expression of our interdependence. Its effects will be felt by every one of us in every corner of the globe. No country can deal with it alone.

The scientific debate is over – we are causing climate change. The threat to our shared security and prosperity is real and acute. The window of opportunity to prevent dangerous climate change is closing rapidly. And we must act now.

Economically, doing nothing will cost far more than dealing with the problem now.

And there is also an economic opportunity. We have the technology and the resources to make a rapid transition to a global low-carbon economy. We only need the political will.

On my first day in this job, I saw how dangerous climate change could be for Britain. In the North of England, we experienced the heaviest rain for decades. There were serious floods, submerging entire streets.

And we see many countries – from Senegal in West Africa to Ethiopia in the East – suffering even worse floods. What are we going to do when people start fighting about water and arrive at our shores fleeing environmental catastrophe? What are we going to do when these to whom we sell goods can’t buy from us any more because they are swimming for their lives?

I recently attended my first international meeting on climate change in Berlin – the Gleneagles Dialogue. Around the table were people with lots of experience who had been to scores of meetings. And as I sat there, three things struck me. No one argued about the nature of the problem. Everyone recognised that it is an economic and political, as well as an environmental, issue, regardless of the history. And everybody knew that it falls to all of us to deal with it. So, someone might ask: what are you waiting for, if you all agree that is the problem?

The first task is to decide where responsibility lies, and who is to take action. That’s easy, because the UN process must be central.

Because this is such an important problem, we should welcome every effort to foster international action. But it will be at the Bali Conference [this month] that we will be judged.

The big question is what should this agreement look like? The ultimate objective of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change requires at least a halving of global emissions by the middle of this century. Why? Because we have to avoid dangerous temperature change; in the EU’s view, no more than 2˚C.

Once you have a clear objective, and you know what parts per million concentration any given level of emissions will result in, then you can see whether all the commitments are enough to avoid dangerous change. Currently, they are not.

So, we require:

  • Commitments to reduce emissions n Strengthening and extension of global carbon markets
  • Development, deployment and transfer of the necessary technology
  • Adaptation to deal with the consequences of climate change
  • Action on deforestation
  • Reductions in emissions from aviation and maritime transportation
  • Last and not least: money, to make all these things happen.

If we are going to get a global agreement, developed countries must, of course, in the words of the 1992 Framework Convention, “take the lead” by agreeing deeper, binding emission reductions.

We cannot say that often enough. And that means all of us, including the largest economy in the world – the United States of America – taking on binding reduction targets. It is inconceivable that climate change can be avoided unless this happens.

A post-2012 international agreement will need to address US and other countries’

concerns about competitiveness. We are all concerned about the process of managing this change, but we have to deal with that while dealing with the problem in each making a fair contribution.

But even that will not be enough. Without constraining the rights of all countries to sustainable economic development, it is equally important that all countries should, as the convention also states, act to “protect the climate system… on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”.

The truth is that, even if all developed countries became carbon-neutral by the middle of the century, it would not be enough to stop dangerous climate change. All parties need to be willing to make a fair and effective contribution.

In other words, every country – especially as they develop – will have to play a part. And one of the tasks that we are going to face in negotiations is how any agreement should take account of the different stages of development of developing countries themselves. China’s CO2 emissions represent a very different challenge to those, say, of Malawi.

Earlier this year, Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced the creation of an £800M international Environmental Transformation Fund. It will help developing countries to access clean energy, adapt to climate change, and support reduced emissions from deforestation. On aviation, the next big step forward will be to include it in the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme.

What all this shows is that there is still an enormous amount of work to do. But what it also means for all of us is that the time for more talking about the problem is over.

And for that reason the Climate Change Conference this year in Bali has to start negotiations. It has to tell the world that all governments will aim to conclude a global and comprehensive post-2012 agreement by 2009 in Copenhagen.

It will have to be ambitious. There is no point in negotiating a deal that will not take us towards stabilisation, and so avoid climate change. I believe that we will have to agree in Bali that we will reduce global emissions to at least 50% below 1990 levels by 2050.

You could almost believe it was straightforward, couldn’t you? But I believe we are at a turning point. The test is the greatest this generation will face. So I think we should get on with it.

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