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Sharing our future: how the world can avert climate chaos

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report calculated a ‘budget’ for greenhouse gas emissions  if global average temperature rise is to be contained within 1.5-2C. Amid fractious debates between rich and poor at the UN climate talks in Warsaw, Phil England spoke to Christian Aid’s expert, Mohamed Adow, about how countries could agree to share the remaining allowable emissions.

NGOs walk out from climate talks protesting at lack of ambition. Friends of the Earth / Luka Tomac www.lukatomac.comPhil England: [The executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)] Christina Figueres said in the Guardian that it would be politically very difficult to even talk about how to fairly share the remaining safe emissions budget. She said: ‘I don’t know who would hold the pen.’ But until we see a carbon budget embedded in the UN talks, all our efforts to stay within two degrees will come to nought.

Mohamed Adow: If we continue at our current emissions levels we will have used up the remaining carbon budget within about 25 years—which means, if we are serious about the two-degrees [Centigrade ceiling on average global warming] objective, we need to engage with the carbon-budget approach so that we are in line with what science says is required. We’re in a situation now where the less well-off developing countries are actually leading the world towards curbing climate change and the developed world—Canada, Australia and Japan—are breaking their climate promises. These countries are cowed by the dirty energy industries. They are setting the world on a race to the bottom. We must stop them.

We need to be able to protect the planet for current and future generations. We need to protect our food-production systems that are threatened by climate change. We need to protect people in the Philippines and other countries who are already feeling first and worst the impacts of climate change. We need to shift the world from the dirty-energy pathway we are on to a clean and sustainable pathway. If we are serious about climate change—and I believe we are—it’s time we actually rose to the challenge. Let Typhoon Haiyan be a wake-up call for the world to act in a way that is ambitious and also fair.

PE: In sharing the effort, both to reduce emissions and to fund developing countries to develop cleanly and adapt to climate change, what principles are you using? My understanding is that the principles are actually coming out of language that is in the original Framework Convention of 1992 that everyone is signed up to.

MA: That’s right. In 1992, countries agreed to co-operatively prevent dangerous climate change, to be able to adapt naturally to climate change and ensure food production is not threatened and the world economy can progress in a sustainable manner. The core principles in the convention [include] the adequacy principle. which requires countries to undertake emissions reductions to avoid dangerous climate change and to provide effective adaptation to the poorest and most vulnerable countries.

The second important principle in the convention is the idea of the right to sustainable development. This explicitly focuses on safeguarding the sustainable-development rights of the poorest countries who aspire to attain a decent standard of living. For those countries we are required to help them move to low-carbon development through finance and clean technology provided by those countries with the most historical responsibility and greater [financial] capacity.

PE: Using these principles you’ve been able to quantify the amount of effort each country should make. How do your results differ from what’s currently on the table?

MA: Countries have acknowledged that there is an ambition gap. They’ve proposed to close this through action to face down gases that are polluting the atmosphere, to shift subsidies from dirty energy to clean energy and to undertake international co-operative actions around renewable energy and energy efficiency. They need to follow through and deliver on these commitments. Warsaw must agree a clear timeline on increasing the ambition of countries in the pre-2020 period. And the kind of commitments we are looking for is what the science says we need to stay below two degrees [warming]. What is required is for emissions to peak around 2015 and for countries to publicly state that they will be raising their ambition levels and contributing to the global climate fund, with adequate financing to support those countries that are affected by climate change, and to support particularly the poorest countries to develop in a clean manner.

PE: So what kind of obligation does the US, for example, have under this framework?

MA: The US has about 4.5 per cent of the global population. If you look at climate emissions from just 1990 they are responsible for 27 per cent of the global emissions. If you look at US capacity—that is national income adjusted for purchasing power parity—the US has about a third of the world total, which means the US has to take on about a third of the global responsibility. The current industrialised countries, where about 17-18 per cent of the global population live, will be required to take on nearly two thirds of the emissions cuts. And these are the same countries who have nearly 60 per cent of global income, once you’ve adjusted for and excluded the proportion of the population that lives under the development threshold. So if you adjust income for basic need you realise the global capacity sits with the rich industrialised countries and it’s these countries that have to pay for a lot of the actions that will be required by developing countries.

PE: But we have a huge gap in terms of ambition right now.

MA: This is a gap that has been with us since Copenhagen when countries put forward their initial mitigation [of emissions] and climate-finance commitments. There is a difference between the emissions the world is on course to produce and the ambition level required to [get] on track for the two-degree emission pathway. If we look at finance, the world committed to raising $100 billion by 2020. There was a commitment to deliver ‘fast track finance’ of $10 billion per year between 2009 and 2012 but for the period between 2013 and 2020 there is currently no collective commitment on climate finance. Parties have acknowledged these gaps and they’ve indicated they will be closing them. But we need to be seeing concrete action—otherwise we will be shooting beyond the agreed global climate objective of [staying below] 2C.

PE: Besides being embedded in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to which everybody is already signed up, what other support is there for this approach currently?

MA: Civil society supports our equity principles, our equity indicators and the framework we have put forward. Governments have also started talking about equity in ways that are linked to the convention principles. They’ve acknowledged these principles and have committed not to reinterpret them. Governments like South Africa and the African group that includes 54 countries and the Least Developed Countries are supportive. We are pleased to note that the volume on equity has been turned up this year. But what we need is to establish a clear vision that captures the UNFCCC principles in a way that they can be operationalised.

We’re looking forward to forging a clear plan that is based on the principles of the convention. But we are far away from where we ought to be. Warsaw has to bridge the gap between developed and developing countries [and] between the different government views and increase understanding on the need for effort sharing. That is what is required to be able to deliver an effective deal in Paris in 2015.

PE: Even though we’re expecting a deal to be agreed in Paris in 2015, it’s not going to come into effect until 2020. Is there any reason why it has to take five years before it comes into effect or is there any way of moving that timetable forward?

MA: In effect governments are delaying the desperately needed climate action. But governments also agreed to ramp up their pre-2020 ambition, because 2020 is going to be too late for poor people who are on the front line. What is needed is urgent, ambitious action in the pre-2020 period. So they must agree—between now and in Paris in 2015—on concrete steps for the pre-2020 period to curb the rise in the world’s emissions and to be able to deliver the climate support that is required both to adapt and cope with a changing climate, and to shift towards a clean-development pathway.

About the author

Phil England is a freelance journalist who writes for the Independent, the Wire and New Internationalist. His Climate Radio programmes are archived at www.climateradio.org. Follow Phil on Twitter @climateradio


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