THE Copenhagen climate talks provide the opportunity for world leaders to move boldly and decisively to tackle climate change. Whatever the outcome, the summit will go down in history as a major turning point that determined the fate of humankind on earth.
Throughout history there have been a number of key events that have influenced and shaped our relationship with the environment. In 1972 universal concern about the health and sustainable use of the planet and its resources resulted in the United Nations conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden.
The Stockholm conference recognised our failure to manage the biosphere as well as the increasing gap between developed and developing countries. For the first time the environment was placed high on the political agenda. The conference led to the foundation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which had a mandate to protect and manage the global environment. After the conference a number of nations established ministries of environment and developed the first wave of policies to reduce environmental pollution. This period also saw the establishment of many leading environmental non-governmental organisations such as Friends of the Earth.
Twenty years later in 1992, nations of the world gathered together once more at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) also know as the Earth Summit. The Summit produced Agenda 21 – a blueprint for action to be taken by organisations globally, nationally and locally to implement the concept of sustainable development. It also led to the adoption of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification as well as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC entered into force in 1994 with the objective to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. The Commission on Sustainable Development was created to monitor and report on implementation of the Earth Summit agreements.
Twenty years after the Earth Summit in 2002 the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) took place in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was convened by the United Nations to discuss progress towards sustainable development and resulted in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation which was intended to build on the achievements made since the 1992 Earth Summit and realise the remaining goals not yet achieved. The plan promoted the integration of the three components of sustainable development – economic development, social development and environmental protection.
In 1997 the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC was held in Kyoto, Japan. The meeting led to the adoption of the international agreement on climate change called the Kyoto Protocol. The major feature of the Kyoto Protocol is that it sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These amount to an average of five per cent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012.
All these events have been major milestones in the history of environmentalism and have changed the way we manage our environment from the global to the local level. The fifteenth meeting of COP in Copenhagen (COP 15) will be another such event. However, this event is seen as an end game. The final chance to thrash out a successor to the Kyoto protocol which will prevent runaway climate change. This will mean halting the increase in greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to keep the global temperature below two degrees centigrade. Above this level there will be dangerous and irreparable damage to our climate system.
A reduction of 25-40% compared to 1990 levels are needed and these would need to rise to 80-95% by 2050. The Stockholm Environment Institute in partnership with Friends of the Earth Europe shows how European Union can cut domestic emissions by 40% in 2020, and by 90% in 2050, compared to 1990 levels. This is considered the minimum scale and speed of reductions science says is likely to be needed from rich countries to avoid a climate catastrophe. The 40% emissions cuts can be achieved through a combination of radical improvements in energy efficiency, the accelerated phase-out of fossil fuels, a dramatic shift towards renewable energies, and lifestyle changes.
The big issues are whether developing countries such as China and India can continue to grow and achieve their development goals and whether richer nations are willing to pay for poorer countries to achieve a low carbon development.
Whether talks at Copenhagen succeed or fail it will go down in history as a landmark event. We can only hope that all parties can “seal the deal”. If not then they can at least achieve this goal as soon as possible in 2010. The only thing worse than no deal is a false deal – a deal that raises hopes and expectations but ultimately fails due to broken promises and puts human survival on this planet at risk.
© Gary Haq 2009