Everything to gain
describing global warming as a threat
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.
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.
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.