Reflections on Climate Week and The Path Forward

Last week’s climate talks started with a bang and ended with a thud. A clear message emerged from the UN summit on climate change early in the week—now is the time to act. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, citing widespread calls for immediate and urgent action, stated that the meeting of more than 80 heads of states “succeeded beyond our expectations.” In sharp contrast, the week ended with a less-than-inspiring gathering of major greenhouse gas emitters in Washington, where President George W. Bush wasted a golden opportunity to move the process forward and propel the United States into a leadership role on climate change. While the President’s rhetoric about the problem has evolved, his understanding of the urgency of climate change and the form and scale of the response required clearly have not changed.

Policies that Promote Solutions, Not Problems

Experience has demonstrated that voluntary measures and “aspirational” goals do not work; mandatory and binding commitments will be required to reduce emissions in time to avoid warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius and catastrophic climate change. It is critical to establish short- and long-term limits on global emissions and national caps that put the world on the path toward 50-percent reductions by mid-century.

The technologies required for starting down this path are available now. Renewable energy and energy efficiency options are ready to be scaled up today and can meet rising needs for energy services while reducing global emissions.[1] Although research and development funding for advanced technologies is important and can help in the longer-term, it is even more critical to establish frameworks and policies that promote solutions that can begin immediately to reduce the world’s emissions. Key among these are mandatory emissions targets that help to create markets by putting a price on carbon.

The climate problem will not be solved one smokestack at a time. Rather, the challenge is to create a new energy system that will not only protect the climate but will be economically superior to the one in place today. The European Union is already moving ahead in this direction, with significant commitments for emissions reductions and parallel increases in renewable energy and efficiency. What’s driving this shift? EU leaders see it not only as necessary for reducing the threat of climate change, but also as “an investment in [Europe’s] economic future.”[2] If saving the climate becomes a race for who dominates one of the fastest growing sectors of the 21st-century economy, recalcitrance and delay will no longer be viewed by climate negotiators as the keys to “success.”

A Climate of Progress?

Many of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters are already taking key steps to address climate change. For example:

  • In early 2007, all 27 members of the European Union agreed to a legally binding target to reduce their combined emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Aiming to set the pace for the rest of the world to follow, they committed to a 30 percent reduction if other major emitters joined them. The EU also agreed early this year that any new fossil energy plants from 2020 onward must meet a net-zero carbon standard, and increased renewable energy targets to 20 percent of total energy by 2020.[3]
  • Although it is currently far short of achieving its Kyoto Protocol target, Japan is now determined to meet its reduction commitment by harnessing advanced technologies and traditional social systems. The country has launched a national campaign, with the government taking the lead, calling on all businesses and households to do their part.
  • Despite the government’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, Australia has committed to meeting national targets under the treaty. Due in great part to rising popular pressure to address climate change, Prime Minister John Howard has announced that Australia will implement a domestic emissions cap-and-trade system by 2012.
  • China, too, is starting to recognize the need to slow its rapidly rising GHG emissions and address climate change. After two years of preparation, the government unveiled its first national plan on climate change in June, introducing guidelines and goals for improving energy productivity and significantly increasing its share of energy derived from renewable sources. This is the first plan of its kind made by any developing country and represents a major step forward; however, much remains to be done.
  • Because its primary concern is economic growth, the government of India has thus far resisted any commitment to slow or reduce emissions growth. But the political climate in India is beginning to change, and there is a rising call for leadership on the issue. Perhaps in response to such developments, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in June that unless people change their lifestyles “our future will be in peril,” and he has since called for a national action plan on climate change.

The world’s top emitters have the ability to put the global energy system on a new track and to drive forward the technology that can benefit the world as a whole. Some of them have already begun this transition. A global agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is needed, but consensus on a joint plan of action among all players in this smaller group of nations could provide the leadership required in both North and South to make broader progress possible. It’s too bad that the world missed an opportunity last week to start down this road.

Janet L. Sawin is a senior researcher and director of the Institute’s Energy and Climate Change team. This piece is the third installment in a three-part series of briefs on the importance of the White House climate conference held September 27–28, 2007.


1 See, for example, 2 European Commission Opening Statement (Speaking Notes), Major Economies’ Meeting, Washington, D.C., 27 September 2007. 3 John Ashton, UK Special Representative for Climate Change, presentation at United Nations Foundation, 25 September 2007.