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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.

Global warming

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 generations?

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 the

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 ecosystem.

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 building.

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 adaptation fund.

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 solution?

(The writer is the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources)

 

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