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Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 11 September 2006


Act now on climate, leaders told

At the Asia-Europe Summit held the past few days in Helsinki, the political leaders were told to make climate change a top priority in their future discussions and cooperation activities.  It is the world’s gravest threat, signs of adverse effects are already evident, and greater catastrophe awaits if emission-reduction measures are not taken immediately.

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Among the topics at the Asia-Europe Summit held at Helsinki last weekend was the crisis of climate change.

It is an issue that will increasingly haunt us.  The United Kingdom government’s chief scientific adviser Sir David King has said:  “Climate change is a far greater threat to the world than international terrorism.”

In Helsinki, an Asia-Europe Dialogue on the Climate Challenge was held last week on the eve of the Summit.  Present were policy makers, parliamentarians, scientists and NGOs.  Malaysian participants included two Members of Parliament, Hasni Mohammad and Dr.Ago Anak Dagang, and myself.

Organised by the Finnish Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of the Environment, the dialogue highlighted the latest scientific facts and discussed what can be done.

The effects of climate change are already being experienced in the form of extreme weather events including severe floods, droughts and storms, while glaciers are shrinking.

Scientists at the meeting said that this century global temperatures could rise by 6 degrees centigrade, a level which threatens human survival.  Anything beyond an increase of 2 degrees would be intolerable.

To limit temperature rise to 2 degrees, developed countries have to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases below the 1990 level by 15-30 per cent by 2020 and 60-80 per cent by 2050.

Very little progress has been made.  The European Commission’s climate change director Jos Delbeke said Europe’s emissions today were only 1 percent below the 1990 level, whereas Europe is obliged under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce by 8 per cent by 2012.

He was confident the target could be reached through increase in energy efficiency and renewable energy, plus emission trading.  But responding to a question, he could not give any convincing reason for his optimism, agreeing that the worst area was transport as vehicle emissions rose 33%.

A sad reflection of the state of policy is that few participants had faith in politicians in taking the lead.  Instead the role of religious leaders was stressed.  If they can speak up on the lifestyle changes needed, the world will have a chance.

The Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja was perhaps an exception.  He drew graphs showing the climate situation had passed crisis point, and asked participants to pile the pressure on Ministers to keep them on their toes.

He advocated the equity principle in a global solution:  take the total carbon dioxide amount that the world can sustainably absorb, divide that by the world population to get the per capita carbon dioxide that is the right of each person to emit.  Those countries over-emitting carbon beyond their rights would have to pay those countries that emit less than their entitlement.

The “fairness” principle was stressed throughout the meeting.  While China and India are blamed for their increasing share of global emissions, it was pointed out that in per capita terms their pollution levels are far below those of the United States and Europe.

In the Kyoto Protocol, only developed countries are obliged to reduce their emissions. This is in recognition of their historical and present huge contribution to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Negotiations have started for the next round of commitments beyond 2012.  Developed countries are trying to find ways to get developing countries to begin to commit to emission reductions.

But the latter are resisting.  They argue that the rich countries have not yet fulfilled their targets and that emissions per capita are still low in developing countries, which should thus be given the space for economic growth (which would be curbed if they have to limit their emissions).

One way to bridge the gap is for the rich countries to transfer climate-friendly technology to developing countries, so that they can grow economically with less emissions.

The European Commission is setting aside funds for this, for example to help China develop a zero-emission coal plant.

But the rate of technology transfer may be too little and too late. One hurdle pointed out at the dialogue was the role of intellectual property. 

Companies owning the patents for safer chemicals to replace the ozone-depleting CFC and halon chemicals have previously refused to allow Indian companies to make these substitutes, even when the latter were willing to pay royalties.

There is a danger that the same problem will block the spread of climate-friendly technologies, unless the global patent laws are changed, or those governments that fund innovation insist that the technologies are not privately patented.

Out of the dialogue came a Message to the political leaders of the Asia-Europe Summit, calling on them to make climate change a top priority, and to arrange for technology transfer and multiplying financial aid.

“We urge leaders to continue discussions on the future global climate regime to agree on a global equitable climate protection after the Kyoto protocol,” it said.  

 


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