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Climate Change

What Needs to Be Done to Counter It

By Nicole Wilke

What do you associate with climate change? Large United Nations climate conferences with hardly any tangible outcomes, like the one in 2009 in Copenhagen? Or an increased number of extreme weather events, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels? Despite the impression created by some, there is broad scientific agreement that climate change is caused by human activities, that it is taking place even faster than so far predicted, and that not tackling it will be far more costly than doing so. Nonetheless climate change has moved somewhat out of the political focus, not just of the general public but also of heads of state and government. Why this has happened and what we can do to counter it are questions that will be addressed.

In the run up to the climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, a number of extreme weather events such as a very warm winter in Europe made climate change tangible. The publication of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underlined the scientific evidence of climate change; the Nobel Peace Prize given to the IPCC reinforced the issue’s importance. All this signaled to heads of state and government that it was time for them to act immediately. More than 100 of them came to Copenhagen and negotiated a text, the Copenhagen Accord, that acknowledged the urgency to act and to keep global temperature increase below 2°C. Over 80 countries, among them the largest emitters, announced national climate policies, an achievement that appeared impossible a few years earlier.

But the public expected a new and binding climate treaty, not a text that was simply acknowledged. So Copenhagen was regarded as a complete failure. One year later, in Cancun, the substance of Copenhagen was formally adopted, and countries inscribed their national commitments into annexes to decision documents. But since Copenhagen, the financial and economic crisis has dominated political attention. The mainstream view in both developed and developing countries was and still is to tackle this short-term crisis first, so that over time the resources will once again become available to tackle the longer term challenge of climate change.

But is this true? Joseph Stiglitz, a prestigious economist, recently reiterated that it is not. In fact, investments in preventing climate change contribute to the restoration of aggregate demand and therefore growth, which could help overcome the financial and economic crisis. The German Energiewende, the transformation toward a low-carbon society, is driven at least as much by an economic rationale as by climate change. Our target is to reduce our emissions by 40% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels and to transform our electricity supply to almost 100% renewables by 2050. An energy concept in 2010 and the decisions on accelerating the energy transformation of summer 2011 describe the road toward the new energy era with specific targets, a monitoring process, and a sound financing plan, as well as around 180 individual measures.

Increasing the share of renewable energy, increasing energy efficiency in industry, better insulation of houses, and improved public transport are instruments chosen in many countries along with the means to increase resilience against the consequences of climate change. Energy and climate policy thus are two sides of the same coin, although they are often not considered jointly.

Much has happened in the last few years all over the world, but the action taken by countries falls short of setting us on a trajectory to stay below an increase of 2 ∞C. The United Nations Environment Programme Emissions Gap Report 2012 concludes that additional emission reductions of at least 8–13 GtCO2e are needed. According to the report, they can be achieved by ìswift and comprehensive action to scale up a wide range of tried-and-true policy actions. These are actions that have worked around the world and in many different sectors, and which are not only beneficial to climate protection, but also satisfy a great variety of other local and national priorities.

So far climate action is driven mostly by countries’ judgments of what they consider bearable for them at the national level when others are taking similar action. The co-benefits of ambitious climate policy are often overlooked. This brings us back to the international climate negotiations.

A robust and legally binding global framework, which ensures transparency through monitoring, review, and verification of countries’ actions; incentivizes ambitious action; and delivers financial and technological support both for mitigation and adaptation, will support national policies and trigger ambitious mitigation commitments by all countries. Obviously those commitments will have to vary according to the respective responsibilities and capabilities of the countries taking them on.

In 2011 in Durban, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed to negotiate a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force by 2015 to be implemented no later than 2020. These negotiations have only just begun. In 2013 the focus should be on testing ideas around core concepts and possible elements of such a new global and legally binding agreement.In 2014 the focus should move toward detailing these concepts and in2015 on the detailed textual negotiations.In 2014, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon intends to invite heads of state and government to discuss the level of ambition in international climate policy. This will contribute to a renewal of political momentum.

Compared to the position before Copenhagen, enhanced national action builds a solid foundation for a global agreement. Nonetheless, much more needs to be done. So far the focus of many is the action up to 2020, but in2015 targets for 2030 will need to be inscribed into the new legal instrument.This requires a profound analysis of the opportunities and the cost of such targets in all countries around the world. Germany and the rest of the European Union are looking forward to this debate.

Does this mean we can rest until2020? The answer is clear that we cannot.All the modeling indicates to us that the more action we take now, the more likely it is we can stay below 2°C. Pre-2020 mitigation ambition is therefore key for an ambitious post 2020 framework. As a consequence it should be our main focus at the climate conference in Warsaw in November this year.

I will close with some final remarks regarding the perception of international climate conferences. These conferences have been criticized for a lack of progress and concrete results. This ignores the fact that they have delivered, overtime, a comprehensive infrastructure to assist developing countries in adapting to and mitigating the risks of climate change. They have also delivered the basis for a comprehensive transparency system. Both are elements of the future agreement. It is true that they have not yet delivered the needed level of mitigation ambition. Ultimately it is not the conferences that will do this but the 194 parties to the Framework Convention through their national policies. But to get there, the risks of climate change need to be integrated into political decision making, and climate change policy needs to be integrated into each countries’ development paradigm.