Rhein on Energy and Climate

Between November 26th and December 7th the international community will again come together and discuss on what to do against climate change.

It will be the 18th time since 1990 that the world will meet under the auspices of the UN Framework of Climate Change. This time, delegates are supposed to decide on the steps to be taken for the adoption by 2015 of a comprehensive climate agreement covering all countries, which should enter into force after 2020.

Since its turbulent 2009 meeting in Copenhagen the international community has not achieved much worth mentioning. Above all, it has failed to define a global a strategy for containing the increase of global temperature within 2°C, its agreed objective.

To obtain any concrete results it must make the target operational:

  • How much more emissions, if any, can Humanity afford before the atmosphere will reach a critical concentration ?
  • What are the most effective measures for reducing emissions?

During the last 60 years, global green house gas emissions have been rising at an ever accelerating rate and will continue to do so unless Humanity takes dramatic steps for reducing them.

Containing emissions is bound to become more difficult with every year that passes because rising numbers of human beings will want to benefit from higher economic well-being, which is inseparable from rising energy consumption.

As long as Humanity remains totally focused on material well-being and growth, it is unlikely to achieve the huge emission reductions necessary to stabilise the planet’s temperatures. Faced with the choice of material comfort today and stable temperatures/climate in the future Humanity tends to forget about the future and enjoy the present. Such an attitude would be unpardonable as climate change will become irreversible beyond a ”tipping point” from which we may no longer be far away.

The conundrum is exacerbated by the huge disparities of economic well-being: from a perspective of both equity and effectiveness USA, Europe, Japan and, to a lesser extent, even China must be in the forefront of reducing emissions. If not forced by extraordinarily severe damage from climate change, their societies will shy away from their responsibility, as the US record during the last 20 years has shown.

Only the EU has fixed an ambitious target of “decarbonising” its society by the middle of the century. But it is unlikely to persevere if its main competitors do not follow its example.

Most projections on future concentration of green house gases in the atmosphere show that unless Humanity stops emitting green house gases during the 21st century the average global temperature will exceed 2°C and probably rise to 4°C or even higher.

In view of such apocalyptic scenarios, world citizens are entitled to expect political leaders to offer them some transparency of what may be ahead for their posterity and act to protect them against climate disasters.
The EU seems the best equipped to take the lead.

It has established road maps to 2050 for power generation, industry, transport, buildings and agriculture, by which to reduce its green house gas emissions by 80-95 per cent until 2050.

It should urgently share its approach with USA, China, Japan and Korea, the other main emitter countries and international competitors and induce them to undertake similar excercises.

It should also invite a small group of renowned climate scientists to answer two crucial questions:

  • At what speed will global temperatures rise if Humanity fails to decarbonise its activities before 2100 latest?
  • What measures need Humanity take to achieve decarbonisation at the lowest cost?

By October 2013 the answers should be available for a global debate, which hopefully will frighten the international community so much that it will finally agree on the necessary measures to prevent the worst scenarios from unfolding.

The worst polluting countries countries, including China, must be in the lead, while the poor countries should obtain international help in their efforts to come to terms with the consequences of climate change.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels.

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