By Michael Jacobs
Senior Adviser at the Institute for
Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris and a
visiting professor at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change
and the Environment at the London School of Economics.
people around the world this year, the weather has become anything but a
topic for small talk. Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, America's
record-breaking freeze, California's year-long drought, and flooding in
Europe have put the long-term dangers of climate change back on the
political agenda. In response, United Nations Secretary-General Ban
Ki-moon has sent an urgent letter to government, business, civil
society, and finance leaders, urging them to attend a special Climate
Summit in New York in September.
The event will be the first time
that world leaders have met to discuss global warming since the UN's
fateful Copenhagen climate-change summit in 2009. Amid high expectations
- and subsequent recriminations - that meeting failed to achieve a
comprehensive, legally-binding agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas
emissions. So, at September's summit, leaders will be asked to re-boot
the diplomatic process. The goal is a new agreement in 2015 to prevent
average global temperatures from rising by two degrees Celsius, the
level that the international community has deemed "dangerous" to human
At first sight, that looks like a hard task. Since
Copenhagen, climate change has slipped down the global agenda, as the
restoration of economic growth, voter concern about jobs and living
standards, and violent conflict in key trouble spots have taken
But the tide may be turning. More people are grasping
the true extent of the dangers ahead. In its latest authoritative
assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
concluded last year that scientists are now 95% certain that human
activities are the principal cause of rising temperatures. Over the next
two months the IPCC will release further reports detailing the human
and economic impacts of probable climate change and the costs and
benefits of combating it. US Secretary of State John Kerry recently
described climate change as "perhaps the world's most fearsome weapon of
mass destruction," warning of "a tipping-point of no return." Few
serious commentators now dispute the science.
So the key question now is how the world's leaders will respond. There are grounds for cautious optimism.
New York will not be like Copenhagen. Leaders are not being asked to
negotiate a new agreement themselves; that job will remain with their
professional negotiators and environment ministers. Moreover, the
process will not be concluded this year but at the UN climate conference
in Paris in December 2015. That provides plenty of time to translate
political commitments made in New York into a legally-binding accord.
the world's two largest greenhouse-gas emitters, the United States and
China, are now more committed to action than they were five years ago.
US President Barack Obama has announced a far-reaching plan that
authorizes the Environment Protection Agency to take dramatic measures
in the next few months to limit power-station emissions, virtually
ending coal-fired electricity generation altogether.
worsening air pollution and growing concerns about energy security have
led the government to consider a cap on coal use and an absolute
reduction in emissions within the next 10-15 years. The government is
experimenting with carbon pricing, and investing heavily in low-carbon
wind, solar, and nuclear energy.
Further, the two countries are
actively cooperating. Last year Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping
committed to phase out hydrofluorcarbons, a potent greenhouse gas. In
February, they announced their intention to work together on climate
policy - a marked contrast to Sino-US tensions over Pacific security and
trade issues. With the European Union also preparing to commit to new
2030 climate targets, hopes for a global deal are rising.
cause for optimism is the re-appraisal of climate-change economics.
Five years ago, policies aimed at cutting greenhouse-gas emissions were
seen as a cost burden on the economy. Negotiations were therefore a
zero-sum game, with countries seeking to minimize their obligations
while asking others to do more.
However, new evidence may be
altering the economic calculus. According to research conducted by the
Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, far from hurting the
economy, well-designed climate policy may actually boost growth. Chaired
by former Mexican President Felipe Calderón and comprising former prime
ministers, presidents, and finance ministers, the Commission is
analyzing how investments in clean-energy infrastructure, agricultural
productivity, and urban transport could stimulate sluggish economies.
Its conclusions will be presented at September's summit; if accepted,
the Commission's work could mark a turning point, transforming the way
in which climate policy is perceived by the world's economic
None of this guarantees success. Powerful vested
interests - not least the world's fossil-fuel industries - will no doubt
seek to limit progress, and most governments are not yet focused on the
problem. But one thing is certain: the reality of climate change is
making it impossible to ignore.
Copyright: Project Syndicate