Climate Change -- Beyond Copenhagen


by Maurice Strong

The good news about Copenhagen is that it produced universal agreement on the importance of early action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to manageable levels. It also made progress on some of the key elements to be included in such an agreement and on continuing the ongoing process of negotiation. The bad news is that it revealed deep and unresolved differences between the positions of the main parties, notably between the more developed and the less developed countries. Particularly important is the position of China, now the biggest source of emissions. While a late comer to its position as the world’s most rapidly developing economy. It has contributed much less to the accumulation of greenhouse gases that has brought us to the threshold of the risks we now face and is still on a per capita basis contribute much less than the United States and others which contributed most to the risks we now face.

We must treat the current erosion of support for action on climate change as an opportunity to resolve the issues which continue to divide the positions of governments and respond to the urgent warnings of scientists which have been undermined by recent differences amongst some of them.

One of the most important results of Copenhagen is that the traditional more developed countries have had, however reluctantly to yield to China and other newly developed countries the political role which accords with their growing economic powers. It thus confirmed the reality that the world’s geopolitical center has shifted to Asia.

China is already undertaking and is strongly committed to major initiatives that will make it a leader in a transition to a low carbon economy. Overall, these are these are likely to go beyond what it would be expected to accept as mandatory under and international agreement. However, China has joined with other leading newly developing countries – India, Brazil and South Africa – in insisting that the actions of all developing countries on climate change be voluntary while the commitment of the more developed countries be mandatory. The chances of agreement on this have deteriorated since Copenhagen.

With unusually severe winter weather in North America, Europe and China, the recession which has exacted such heavy costs on our economies, preoccupation with related issues have taken a toll on interest and support for early action. This is particularly true in the United States where health care and other controversial issues have reduced the ability of President Obama to mobilize the support required to enable the United States to take the lead in addressing climate change that is so indispensible to the prospects for success of these negotiations.

At the core of the issues that remain to be resolved is the need to make available to developing countries the funding and access to technology which they require to reduce their contributions to global emissions while enabling them to continue to develop their economies and to participate fully and equitably in the further development of the global economy. For both the climate change and economic crisis are rooted in the inadequacies of the existing economic system that has now so dramatically underscored ominous consequences of the growing gap between rich and poor. Assistance to developing countries must go well beyond the foreign aid which has never reached the level at which it was promised. For emissions of greenhouse gases have the same effect on global climate whatever their source. It is in our common interest to ensure that developing countries have the financial and technological resources to continue to build their economies while participating fully in international cooperation for effective management of the crisis.

The finances required for this will be on the order of One Trillion dollars over the first 10 years and much more beyond. This is beyond anything the more developed countries are now willing to do, in light of the economic problems which we are facing. Yet if the figure of One Trillion dollars seems unrealistic it is much less than what is now being spent on military conflicts, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are far less threatening to the human future. It will take a fundamental change in attitudes and mind-set to rise to this challenge. Nations have always been able to give highest priority to threats to their own security. The risks to the security and sustainability all nations with which climate change crisis confront the entire community constitute the greatest security threat ever. We all face it together and can only resolve it by working together.

This is why it is so essential that new impetus to negotiating a mandated and enforceable agreement to extend or replace the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012.  This will only be feasible with a degree of international cooperation that is without precedent. Achieving this is a daunting challenge that will require all countries to accept that the interests of their own people can only be ensured in cooperation with others which must transcend their narrower national interest.