Sunday, December 6, 2009

Climate's day of reckoning looms

The Age, December 7, 2009

"Humanity is setting in motion a series of events that seem certain to cause a significant warming of world climates over the next decades unless mitigating steps are taken immediately."

THAT warning, in a report commissioned by a US president, was delivered 30 years ago and is today vindicated by the evidence all around us. The world prevaricated, even after Britain's Margaret Thatcher called for binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in 1988. In 1990, she told the Second World Climate Conference: "There is already a clear case for precautionary action at an international level." None of her political peers attended.

Since then, even as temperatures and oceans rose faster than predicted, most leaders have been found wanting. Emissions are 60 per cent higher than in 1979. The world is close to the point at which we won't be able to limit temperature rises to 2 degrees this century, which is considered the threshold for avoiding dangerous climate change.

Today, when 192 nations begin the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, they must aim for a binding accord that ensures global emissions peak by 2020 and halve by 2050 to achieve the 2-degree target. Every one of the world's 6.8 billion people will be affected by the deliberations of the next 12 days. It is in all nations' long-term interest to reach an effective agreement.

Years of obstructionism, led by the US under the Bush administration, created habitual pessimism about climate talks. Yet, over the past year, the dynamics have changed more rapidly than could be foreseen a year ago with the election of Barack Obama. The world's 16 biggest emitters produce 71 per cent of emissions. Only one, Iran, has not put on the table targets for emission cuts.

The US and emerging giants China, India and Brazil have stepped forward in recent weeks. All targets combined still amount to only half the cuts required, but big advances are possible if all nations find the resolve to move as one.

Cutting emissions involves huge costs, albeit much less than either the global bail-out of banks or the consequences of doing nothing. Indeed, many nations now see this challenge as a great economic opportunity in the race to develop the dominant sustainable technologies of the 21st century. Last year, for the first time, investment in renewable energy sources and technology was greater than in fossil fuels. The news that about 65 leaders will attend the end of the 12-day conference offers hope that failure will not be countenanced. Rich nations, which produced three-quarters of emissions since 1850, have a duty to lead the way. That includes Australia, which should aim higher than it has to date.

Copenhagen must at least produce an ambitious in-principle framework by December 18, with exact formulations to be agreed within a year. If the political will exists — and momentum is building — this can be done. After a generation of denial and delay, history will judge today's leaders by whether they put future generations at risk or acted to avert climate change.

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