” … governments need to get real about
the consequences of climate change.”

The Guardian (London)
September 26, 2007


For all this talk, still we head steadfastly for catastrophe

This week’s summit on climate change will achieve
nothing if rich countries don’t finally show some

By Kevin Watkins

If talking could cut greenhouse gas emissions,
then this would be a good week for international
action on climate change. It opened with more
than 80 speeches from governments at a special
session on the issue at the UN, and will close
with a two-day “summit” in the White House
bringing together all the world’s major emitters.
The bad news is that we are still heading
steadfastly in the direction of an avoidable
climate catastrophe.

The special session was a bold effort by the
secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to instill
urgency into climate negotiations. His aim: to
prepare the ground for an international treaty
with real, enforceable limits on greenhouse gas
emissions. That means a more ambitious, and
inclusive, successor to the Kyoto protocol, which
expires in 2012. Negotiations begin in earnest in
December at a summit in Bali – or they might if
governments can bring themselves to stop
dithering and start acting.

It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of Bali.
There is still a window of opportunity for
avoiding the worst effects of climate change –
but that window is closing. Most governments
broadly accept the need to restrict average
temperature increases to less than 2C above
pre-industrial levels. Business-as-usual will
take us over twice that level by the end of the
century, so every year of delay will make it more
difficult to achieve the target.

Climate change threatens to cause unprecedented
reversals in human progress in our lifetimes.
Increased exposure to droughts, floods, storms
and climatic uncertainties will reinforce the
poverty trap affecting millions of the world’s
most vulnerable people. Future generations will
have to live with potentially catastrophic
ecological risks.

We need international political leadership of the
highest order. Instead we are witnessing
governments in the rich world conducting
political manoeuvring of
deckchairs-on-the-Titanic variety.

Consider the question of reducing emissions. To
have a realistic chance of avoiding dangerous
climate change, rich countries need to make cuts
of at least 80% by 2050. Kyoto asked for cuts
averaging 5%. And even this has been beyond most
developed countries – the majority have increased
their emissions since signing on to the protocol.

Rhetorical flourishes aside, it is hard to
discern a real intent to change this picture. The
US, the world’s largest emitter, envisages a
voluntary set of “aspirational” goals, negotiated
on a country-by-country basis (no binding
numbers, please).

Europeans paint the US as the sole problem, while
ignoring shortcomings closer to home. The EU has
some of the world’s boldest targets for
reductions, but energy policies are pulling in a
different direction. Britain is not immune: the
proposed climate change bill has adopted what is
presented as an ambitious target of cutting
emissions by 60%. Leave aside the fact that it
excludes aviation, the fastest growing source of
emissions. Forget that it falls far short of what
is needed. Just look at the numbers. Emissions of
carbon dioxide are higher than they were 10 years
ago – and the government has virtually conceded
that its target of a 20% cut by 2010 will not be

Aligning energy policies with climate change
targets will require tough political decisions.
While the technological fixes are available, they
will be deployed only if governments change
incentives. That means pricing emissions through
carbon taxation, or cap-and-trade programmes that
set regulatory limits. The EU’s emissions trading
scheme is a step in the right direction – but
European governments have conspicuously failed to
limit emission permits to a level consistent with
its climate change goals.

What about the developing world? One of the
weaknesses of Kyoto is that it does not extend to
major emitting countries such as China and India.
Both are high-growth economies with large
populations and coal-based energy systems – a
lethal concoction for global warming. As a group,
developing countries now account for about half
of greenhouse gas emissions, and their share is

None of this should divert attention from the
historic responsibility of rich nations. China
may be emerging as the world’s single biggest
source of CO2 emissions, but adjusted for
population its carbon footprint is less than
one-fifth that of the US.

There are two conditions for the major emitters
among developing countries to enter into a
post-2012 deal. First, rich countries need to
demonstrate leadership by making deep early cuts.
Second, they need to put in place a “Marshall
plan” for finance and technology transfer,
providing developing countries with the resources
they need to make a low carbon transition. The
White House summit could address this question,
perhaps setting the scene for a joint EU-US

Finally, before Bali, governments need to get
real about the consequences of climate change. We
urgently need stringent mitigation. But even the
deepest cuts in emissions today will not prevent
temperatures rising for at least three decades.
While the rich world has the capabilities to
protect citizens from the consequences,
vulnerable populations in the developing world
have to cope with their own meagre resources.
Social justice surely demands that, having
manufactured the risk, the rich world compensates
the victims.

· Kevin Watkins is director of the UN’s Human Development Report Office


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