Cold war on a hot topic:
Climate change, global warming and UN debate
On September 22, the Sri Lankan delegation comprising Prime Minister
Ratnasiri Wickramanayaka, the officials and myself attended the United
Nations General Assembly Special Session on Climate Change. Almost all
the distinguished heads of state including the 44th President of the
United States - Barack Obama were in attendance.
At the meeting, Obama, who had championed the Green Voters during the
Presidential Election, elaborated his future plans and announced that
his country would invest over one hundred billion US dollars for green
energy. The USA is the world's biggest environmental polluter and its
excessive fuel emissions are responsible for one third of the global
environmental damages related to climate change. However, at the
meeting, Obama was very much silent on emission cuts and the Kyoto
protocol, for which his country is yet to be a signatory. His silence at
the meeting was a clear manifestation of the strength of the oil giants
in the USA, who had unreservedly attacked his plans of cutting 16 per
cent of fuel emissions relative to the 2009 levels by 2020. The irony is
that the world's biggest polluter wanted China and other countries like
Brazil, India and even Sri Lanka to cut their emission levels in order
to protect the planet for future generations!
Having taken to task, the policy of the USA on climate change, Hugo
Chavez, the President of Venezuela was very clear and loud when he posed
the question, "How come, one Obama is all-out for preservation of
mankind and the other Obama is hell-bent for its extinction?"
China is not a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol and its per-capita
emission is comparatively low (3,900kg compared to 22,000kg of USA).
However, it was very encouraging when its President Hu Jintao pledged to
seek a 15 per cent reduction in emission levels by 2020.
The new Prime Minister of Japan Yukio Hatoyama, who emphasised the
wisdom of treading the middle path, without getting aligned towards the
left or right wing ideologies, was for an Asian Union.
His ambitious plans were to cut their emission level by 25 per cent
over the 1990 level in adhering to the Kyoto Protocol. With his
scientific and mathematical background, Hatoyama was trying to strike an
optimistic note to those who were environmentally concerned. When I met
Japan's Minister of Environment later, I told him that we too shared
some of the views expressed by them at the meeting.
President of France Nicolas Sarkozy went even further and said that
they were going to introduce a carbon tax at the rate of 25 US dollars
per tone of emitted carbon; it was also announced that the European
Union was trying to cut its emission rates by 30 per cent by 2020.
Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed was not convinced by the
deliberations at the meeting. He said pessimistically, that by the time
the UN reached a consensus on a solution to the problem, his country
will completely be under water. This statement was endorsed by the
Indian scientist, the head of IPCCC, Rajendra Pachari who said that, at
the present rate it would be a reality by the end of the century.
So, what is climate change? How is it related to global warming which
causes floods, droughts, tornadoes, retreating ice caps and rising sea
levels, which endanger biodiversity and spread vector-borne diseases?
Why are global leaders so concerned about this? Why is that a new cold
war is emerging over this hot topic? Could we be able to reach an
agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009? What is in store for future
Climate is defined as the long-term average weather conditions in a
place or region. Weather and climate have regular patterns associated
with natural phenomena/input like solar input, earth rotation and other
internal factors in the earth atmosphere system. However, it was noticed
that this regular pattern is changing in a substantial way within a
short time span.
When scientists revealed this change through their research and
Publications, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United
Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988 to look into this problem and
assess the situation. Over 4,000 scientists from all over the world are
associated with the IPCC now. The IPCC has been publishing reports on
global warming since 1990. In their fourth assessment report in 2007, it
was clearly stated that human activity is the primary driver of the
observed change in climate.
It is well established that the main reason for climate change is the
greenhouse effect which warms the earth's atmosphere. The principal
greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and
halocarbons. It is estimated that carbon dioxide contributes to about
sixty per cent of global warming. Atmospheric warming due to the
Greenhouse effect is caused by the heat trapped in the earth's
atmosphere. This phenomenon leads to the accumulation of heat energy in
the atmosphere, thereby raising the temperature.
World leaders who gathered in 1992 for the world summit in Rio De
Janeiro, Brazil set up the United Nations Framework Convention on
Climate Change (UNFCCC). The main objective of this Convention was to
work towards the stabilisation of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) concentrations in
the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic
interferences with the climate system. Even after the UNFCCC was
established, the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere was increasing
rapidly and the temperature showed an upward trend.
To have a legally binding international treaty, the Conference Of
Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC, in 1997, established the Kyoto Protocol as
its legal instrument. Under the Kyoto Protocol, it was agreed that
industrialised countries cut their combined emission of GHGs by 5.2 per
cent from 1990 levels during the 2008-2012 period. To achieve this
target, three mechanisms 1. Emission trading, 2. Joint implementation,
3. Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) were introduced. While 1 and 2 are
limited to industrialised countries, the CDM process as meant for
industrialised countries to invest in developing countries on projects
that reduce GHG emissions while promoting sustainable development.
When the emission levels of 1990 are considered over 36 per cent of
total emissions was by the United States of America, which the European
Union accounted for 24.3 per cent. Other heavy emitters were Russia
(17.4 per cent and Japan (8.5 per cent). With the trend of emission
reduction witnessed in countries, it is very much doubtful that they
will reach the target to comply with the Kyoto Protocol obligation.
Human activities - main reason
In the meantime, the IPCC in it assessment reports repeatedly
indicate human activities as the primary driver of the observed climate
change. All model predictions give temperature rises in the range of 1.4
- 5.8 degrees Celsius by 2100 and place sea level rise due to thermal
expansion of sea water and melting of glaciers and polar ice caps and
the Himalayan snow\glacier melting at 1.8 metres.
It is also estimated that climate change has direct adverse effects
on the lives of people in developing countries. These countries bear
nine, tenth of the climate change burden through economic losses. But
the developing countries' emission levels are so low that there is no
significant contribution to this problem. However, these countries are
at the receiving end.
Since the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol is to be completed by
2012 and with no proper solution in sight for this global problem, the
Conference of Parties, at its 13th meeting in Bali Indonesia, adapted
Bali action plan which urges the UNFCCC to work on a strategy; either
to have a second phase of the Kyoto Protocol so that it will take
practical action for reducing emissions and prevent dangerous episodes
of climate change, or to have other mechanisms to save the earth and its
The Bali action plan set the direction to come up with an appropriate
mechanism by 2009 with the COP 15 to be held in Copenhagen. It proposed
the set up of an ad hoc working group on long-term corporative action
aimed at tackling climate change. The main areas of action include
mitigation, adaptation, financing, technology transfer and capacity
As a developing country, we have no obligation under the Kyoto
Protocol for emission reduction. But we need to think seriously about
adaptation to climate change. In order to adapt, it is necessary to have
sufficient resources including finances.
Our stand and proposal is to set up an adaptation fund separate from
the finances available under the Kyoto mechanism through the CDM and its
adaptation fund. This new fund should be managed by a board set up by
the UNFCCC. Contribution to this fund should be one per cent of GDP of
industrialised countries (Annex 1). With one per cent from Annex 1
countries, the fund will have over US $ 400 billion and developing
countries should have direct access to this fund.
On the mitigation side, the industrialised countries needed to cut
their emissions by at least 49 per cent in 2020 and over 90 per cent in
2050 from the 1990 level. These cuts should come from domestic sources.
We are willing to take the low carbon path for our development to be
sustainable. We have already set up a National Council for Sustainable
Development under the chairmanship of President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is
also the Finance Minister, to implement sustainable development
strategies in Sri Lanka under the 'Haritha Lanka Programme'. We promote
green economy, green jobs and environmental friendly agriculture. We are
willing to undertake National Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMA) to
reduce emission of GHGs. However, these activities need to be supported
by technology transfers and capacity-building with finances from the
No suitable solution
After attending the 64th United Nations General assembly under which
there was a high level meeting on climate change, we find that the
industrialised countries are not coming up with a suitable solution to
the problem. The highest cuts in emission, proposed by the European
Union are only 30 per cent, Japan is proposing 25 per cent while others
are proposing even less. If these are the levels of emission reductions
to take place, then the GHG concentration will rise above the critical
level of 450 ppm and it is inevitable that the temperature will rise
above two degree Celsius from the pre-industrialised value, a few weeks
back, the G8 Summit of industrialised countries pronounced that they
were ready to cut emission levels by 80 per cent in 2050 and wanted the
developing countries to cut their emission level by 50 per cent. USA and
Canada are in the forefront in stressing this, but the EU and Japan are
supposed to take a more flexible stand.
At a round table discussion on transformation of our economies to
enable climate resilience, sustainable and low emission growth for this
and future generations, which was co-chaired by Gordon Brown, Prime
Minister of Britain, in which we also participated, the solution put
forward was of great concern to us. Discussions were based on the
contribution and allocation of funding, the level of predictability of
funding, public and private sector participation through CDM, tax
revenue from aviation and maritime transport.
There was the Mexican proposal which attracted the attention of many
industrialised countries and some developing country parties as well.
The proposal was to set up a green fund for adaption and mitigation
and for all countries except the least developed countries to contribute
to this fund based on their emission levels. The formula is to be
decided based on a price for each tonne of GHG emissions. All developing
countries are to be recipients from the fund for their adaptation and
mitigation activities. Developing countries have had various views on
this proposal. Some said that developing countries are already
contributing, by protecting the forests in their countries without
clearing them and setting up industries for their economic development.
We stressed the point that protecting forests has to be included in
the formula and funds should be provided for conserving the forests
which formed a part of the mitigation action. Rain Forest Coalition and
REDD + (Reducing emission from deforestation) endorsed our proposals.
Although no agreement has yet been reached, the discussions will
continue. Since fossil fuel is the life blood of our economies cutting
emissions means reducing the level of greediness. Could we be able to
achieve this as human beings? Will the Copenhagen Summit provide a
(The writer is the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources)