Everything to gain

OUR PLANET 9.3 - Climate Change

Everything to gain


describing global warming as a threat without
parallel, says that those that move to combat it
now will gain economically as well as environmentally


A British newspaper recently described one of my ministerial colleagues' public statements on climate change as 'apocalyptic'. Perhaps the newspaper was right. But my colleague made no apology for being direct about the potential impacts of climate change, and neither do I. December's climate change negotiations in Kyoto - the Third Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - are among the most important we will ever hold.

They are important because of what is at stake. The disruptive effects of climate change could be literally dreadful. We witness examples almost every week of the disasters which climate change may make more frequent and more damaging: drought and famine in Papua New Guinea; hurricanes and floods in Latin America. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations' group of leading climate scientists from developed and developing countries, have been looking at the effects of climate change by region and sector. Their report, which will issue just before Kyoto, illustrates what may happen if we take no action to fight climate change. It points out some positive effects of climate change. But even taking these into account, it makes grim reading. The IPCC predicts that during the next century, the average rate of warming will be greater than anything seen in the last 10,000 years. Global mean sea level could rise by at least 15 and perhaps as much as 95 centimetres. Surface temperatures will increase by between 1.0 and 3.5oC.

The numbers are dramatic, but the predicted effects even more so. No region of the world will be unchanged. The following are only a very few examples from a 20-page summary of the IPCC's work. In Europe, we could see more animal and plant species under threat; in Africa and Latin America, increased disease. Food production in Latin America will go down. North America could lose as much as 50 per cent of its coastal wetlands, and East Asia suffer more acute water shortages.

Any one of these reasons on its own would be cause for concern. Taken together, they constitute a global threat without parallel. That is why Kyoto needs to agree measures which will achieve significant cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions by developed countries. The target proposed by the European Union (EU) of a 15 per cent reduction from 1990 levels by 2010 is realistic. The United Kingdom has set itself a target of a 20 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions with the same timetable. We will put together our own climate change programme post-Kyoto. The technology and measures for these significant reductions are available. What is needed from the leaders of all developed countries is political will.

Every region of the world will be affected by climate change. The benefits of measures to mitigate its effects will also be felt by us all. But the need to take action on climate change is driven by principle as well as by practical need. Developed countries are historically responsible for most of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions. We have a duty to pass on to our children and theirs a world which can support the quality of life we want them to have. It is no less our duty to help the poorest citizens of the world out of abject poverty and to make sure that no-one is forced to sacrifice their own health and that of their environment in the world's pursuit of economic growth.

That is one reason why it is so important that developed countries should keep to their agreement to lead the way on climate change. We cannot lecture developing countries about the importance of protecting the environment from behind the luxury of our own high living standards and expect to be taken seriously. We have to be prepared to show that we recognize the aspirations of people in developing countries to a better quality of life.

woman with basket There is another, more pragmatic reason why developed countries need to lead the way at Kyoto. In future, most greenhouse-gas emissions will be from developing countries. Because of that, in the long term, all countries will have to be full players in the fight against climate change. We will not convince developing countries of that unless developed countries have already set the pace. The ultimate objective of the Convention on Climate Change is to achieve a stable level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that will avoid dangerous interference with the climate system. Even stabilization at a little above present levels will require significant cuts in global emissions next century. The dilemma facing us is how to achieve that at the same time as improving living standards throughout the developed and developing worlds.

cow and windmills It is difficult to blame those leaders whose global vision fades in the face of such a challenge. But the problem is not as impossible as it seems. The general assumption has been that countries who take steps to protect the global climate are making a sacrifice for the sake of the greater global good. More and more, experience and economic analysis show us that assumption is wrong. Such countries are helping their own economies directly as well as improving their own and the global environment. A report commissioned by the United States Department of Energy demonstrates that companies can reduce their emissions through energy efficiency measures and save costs. Capital turnover during the next 15 years will allow industry to introduce cleaner technology with lower emissions at little extra cost. Other reports have shown how, handled properly, measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions can enhance economic growth. Lower emissions are often coupled with other environmental improvements, such as better air quality.

No one really doubts that in the long run we shall all have to reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions. That will include developing country involvement as well as developed country targets, as Kyoto will have to realize. Countries which act now to bring down their emissions will be getting out ahead of the competition. Technology already offers us solutions. The countries that develop and make that technology will give their companies a lead and the chance to develop materials and skills which in the long run will be needed in markets throughout the world.

This is a truth increasingly recognized by the private sector as well as by governments. In the run-up to Kyoto it means that countries who have been focusing on the costs which action on climate change will involve should instead be looking positively at the benefits they will gain. We do not know what the outcome of Kyoto will be: this is a negotiation and it is important that we come away from the Conference with a Protocol and a plan of action on which everyone can agree. But the United Kingdom and the EU more widely will be arguing strongly for the most effective legally binding targets available. The EU countries know they can achieve their target. And they know it will benefit them to do so.

It has been clear for a long time that it is in our joint interests to take action to help the fight against climate change. We now know that it is in our individual interests too. When the world's environment ministers come to Kyoto in December, they will know they are playing for high stakes. But this is not a zero-sum game. We can all lose. Or we can all win.

The Rt. Hon. Robin Cook M.P. is Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, United Kingdom.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Tony Blair: Opportunity, not obstacle (Climate & Action) 1998
Mark Moody-Stuart: Picking up the gauntlet (Climate & Action) 1998
R.K. Pachauri: Start locally (Climate & Action) 1998
Rubens Ricupero: The new green marketplace (Climate & Action) 1998
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsacker and Hermann E. Ott:
Tax bads, not goods (Climate & Action) 1998
Claude Fussler: Clean = competitive (Hazardous Waste) 1999
Michael Meacher: A stronger conscience (Looking Forward) 1999
Colin Marshall: Change in the air (Tourism) 1999
John Prescott: Seven Threats to the Seven Seas (Oceans) 1998
Stephen O. Andersen: Industry in the lead (Ozone) 1997
Margaret G. Kerr: Profits with honour (The Way Ahead) 1997
Theodore Panayotou: Win-win finance (The Way Ahead) 1997
John Gummer: Valuing the environment (Culture, Values and the Environment) 1996

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