Speaking in Dhaka, Bangladesh, one of the nations most at risk from the possible effects of climate change, on 14 March, Annan urged the US, Europe and Japan to make drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. The speech is seen as a significant shift in policy focus as Annan usually concentrates on the UN’s peacekeeping and humanitarian roles. His decision to push the environment up the UN’s agenda was taken when senior officials at the organisation’s headquarters in New York met to discuss future priorities, with Bangladesh chosen for the speech as Annan said a UN investigation into climate change predicted the monsoons and cyclones that hit the nation will become more frequent and intense.

“Next year in Johannesburg, at the world summit on sustainable development, world leaders will have an opportunity to show that they take the idea of stewardship seriously,” Annan said. “The burden of leadership at this juncture falls on the industrialised countries and, in particular, the United States, the European Union and Japan. They are responsible for most of the world’s past and present carbon emissions and they are best placed – both economically and technologically – to move ahead with their own reductions. To abandon this process now would set back the global climate strategy for many years.”

The Secretary General said that sustainable development was humanity’s biggest challenge in the new century and pleaded that developing countries wouldn’t follow the same “wasteful, short-sighted and hazardous” pattern of industrialisation as the developed nations. Citing evidence from the UN’s three recent studies which forecast drastic changes to the global climate (see related story, related story and related story), Annan said that “one immediate test of resolve is the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to reduce greenhouse emissions, but which has yet to enter into force.” Just over a week earlier, the G8 nations pledged to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to lower GHG emissions (see related story), but later President Bush of the US, the world’s biggest GHG emitter, said that he would oppose legislation to limit CO2 emissions from power plants (see story in this week’s ‘North America’ section).

“In the past, we could afford a long gestation period before undertaking major environmental policy initiatives,” he added. “Today, the time for a well-planned transition to a sustainable system is running out. We may be moving in the right direction but we are moving much too slowly. We are failing in our responsibility to future generations and even to the present one.”

Annan also outlined measures developing countries could take to improve the situation, including making sure that environmental issues are integrated into mainstream economic and social policy; exploring the new business opportunities that changes in climate policy will make available; preparing projects for the ‘clean development mechanism’, a key element of the Kyoto Protocol; and pursuing a path of sustainable industrialisation.

On the same day, researchers from the UK’s Imperial College revealed the first satellite evidence from space, which compared two sets of data taken 27 years apart, that there has been “a significant increase in the greenhouse effect, with atmospheric levels of methane, carbon dioxide, ozone and chlorofluorocarbons”. Until this research, scientists had depended on ground-based measurements and theoretical models to gauge the change in greenhouse gases. The findings were revealed in the magazine Nature.

Data was collected by two orbiting spacecraft in 1970 and 1997 showing the variations in the spectrum of outgoing long-wave radiation, which is a measure of how the Earth cools to space and carries the imprint of the gases that are responsible for the greenhouse effect. The infrared spectrum of long-wave radiation data gathered from a region over the Pacific Ocean as well as from the whole globe was analysed, and by comparing the two sets of information for the same region, scientists observed a change in the outgoing long-wave radiation and, therefore, a change in the greenhouse trapping by the atmosphere.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie