By Chai Mei Ling
Painting a 'real' picture of climate change mitigation negotiations, a recent workshop in India shows CHAI MEI LING how precious the time in our hands really is.
Will the Bali conference on Dec 3-14 turn out to be an exercise in futility? Will it be just an opportunity for government representatives to soak in the atmosphere of the idyllic island?
Despite constant assertions by governments of the urgent need to roll out a plan of action in Bali, perhaps, it won't be all too surprising if at the end of 11 days, the plan remains nothing, but a plan.
Time is on our side, after all, isn't it?
The first phase of the Kyoto Protocol hasn't quite expired. The deadline is 2012. Reaching a consensus and plotting mitigative actions can take place in the Warsaw meeting next year or during the Copenhagen talk in 2009.
Or can it?
We all know climate change is here, is real, and is happening.
Gone were the days when naysayers poured cold water on the science of climate change.
Deniers of the present day can harp on Al Gore's vested interest in promoting issues of climate change, but it's better to make him a rich man than to let the world die.
Let's not take the risk, however small it's perceived to be.
By and large, anybody capable of reading and understanding scientific evidence will know the debate is over, says Kevin Watkins, United Nations Development Programme's director of the Human Development Report Office.
"The challenge three years ago was to persuade leaders and the public. The challenge now is to move from that consensus into action," he says.
The world's convinced, but not quite convinced enough to act urgently.
We haven't moved beyond treating climate change as a problem, when it is now very much a crisis, says Watkins.
The lead author of the Human Development Report 2007 was speaking to journalists at a media conference in New Delhi, last week.
The HDR is an annual, independent publication commissioned by the UNDP, which places people at the centre of the development process.
In its 17th year now, the report, focusing on climate change this year, will be released on Nov 27.
"There's no issue, that we've looked at in the past 17 years, that will be as important to human development as climate change.
"The report is not an account of despair, but a call for action, starting almost immediately, with the conference in Bali."
The Indonesian island will be the meeting point for officials of more than 170 countries to negotiate a new global framework to curb carbon emissions after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.
Under the protocol, developed countries have a binding contract to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by at least five per cent below their 1990 levels, while developing countries, which face no reduction obligations, are encouraged to adopt clean technologies.
It is widely expected that the conference will see a clash of stance between the two sides of the world - industrialised nations pressuring rapidly developing countries into adopting a binding cut, while the poorer nations are likely to cling on to their developing rights.
More worrying than engaging in spats, perhaps, is that leaders might take the easy way out by languishing in idleness.
"What governments like to do in these kind of events is to gather for a couple of weeks in a nice hotel," says Watkins.
"They draw up a high sounding report with three pages on the problem, five pages telling us what they are going to do, and three sentences of where they are going to meet next.
"You might get away with this kind of approach in international trade negotiations. They carry one for seven years, never do anything, it breaks down, it starts again... if you spend 10 years playing that game with climate change, if you don't pick up from where you left off, we're going to be in a very bad position indeed.
"Emissions will accumulate in the atmosphere. The carbon cycle is not going to miss a cycle. It's not going to follow the agenda of international leaders who like to go to five-star hotels to attend a summit.
"We will waste another year before we come back again to do what we could have done in Bali. That would be a shocking abdication of responsibility on the parts of governments."
The planet, says environmental activist Sunita Narain, is already in a bad shape.
In the last century, the earth's surface temperature has increased by some 0.7oC, and we are well on our way to another 0.7-0.8oC increase.
It's inevitable, because of the amount of gases that's already trapped in the atmosphere.
"Even if we stop everything today, there's no stopping a global increase of between 1.5 and 1.6oC," says Sunita, director for India's centre for science and environment.
"There's nothing we can do about it. We are already in a very dangerous zone."
What we can do, however, is to prevent further temperature escalation. It's projected that the earth will be warmer by 3-5oC by 2050.
To shave two degrees off the temperature, the target set by the EU is to cut atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide by 450 parts per million.
Simply put, that's to reduce 85 per cent of our 1990 emission levels, according to the Stern Review by economist Nicholas Stern, which discusses the impact of global warming on the world economy.
We can allow emissions to escalate until 2015, but that's the peak. Everything has to come down after that.
"We're talking about a very small window of opportunity," says Sunita. "The next 10 years is what we have."
Can the planet cut emissions by 85 per cent in the next 43 years? Based on our track record, the answer is, "No".
We've failed miserably where mitigation is concerned.
Or rather, according to Sunita, the industrialised countries have failed terribly.
"The Kyoto Protocol agreed to a miserly target of 7 per cent between 2008 and 2012. But even that has failed," she says.
"The US and Australia have walked out of Kyoto. The EU is still increasing its emissions.
"And yet, there is pressure on India and China to reduce emissions. The north has created the emissions, and now the south is told to clean it up.
"Many are saying China has overtaken the US (in emissions). But who actually put the carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere today?
"It's a lot of talk, little action by the rich nations. I'm tired of this kindergarten approach."
Despite the hoo-ha surrounding China and India's contribution to earth's fever, they are not responsible for the current situation, says Watkins.
"We need to start with recognition - that there is a historical responsibility by the rich countries, and of course, they are going to take on financial responsibility.
"The EU and US cannot ask India to cut down on its energy use. That will be profoundly unethical."
But that doesn't mean developing countries can develop without any responsibility.
India and China will participate, stresses Sunita, not through binding cuts, but through strategy to avoidfuture emissions.
Technology transfer financed by richer countries will allow developing states to adopt the leapfrog approach.
Sunita cites the Delhi clean air campaign launched in 1996 as a successful example of how India took only three years to clean the air, a feat other countries took 15 years to accomplish.
Away from the jargon and political squabbling, are fundamental issues of social justice and equity, of which the world must not lose sight in the course of tackling climate change.
We have to uphold our ethical and moral responsibility towards two voiceless groups - the poor and future generations, says Watkins.
"Decisions we make today will shape the world in a 100 years. Emissions that go up in 2007 will still be in the atmosphere in 2100. And our children's grandchildren will be living with the consequences."
The poor contributed the least to the events leading to climate change, and for that, they will pay the biggest price.
"Do you know what climate change means to farmers who depend on rainfall? Or what it means to someone living in low-lying areas in Mumbai?
"One characteristics of being poor is people are not able to manage even small, incremental risk the way we can.
"It's a one way ticket to poverty. Climate change events don't just inflict immediate threats to lives in poorer countries, it also trap people, in low human development traps."
Adaptation, Watkins says is, "frankly, one of the purest and worst examples of double standards, that you'd find in any sphere".
He cites Britain as an example, which spends US$1.2 billion annually on flood defence, while poor countries will be left to drown in the pool of consequences of rich nations' historical actions.
"We are not interested in what governments say anymore. We want to know what governments do," says Watkins, who still harbours hope on the Bali summit.
Sunita, however, says: "Nothing will happen in Bali. It's a beautiful place, I'm sure everyone will enjoy themselves there."
We'll see. Eyes on you, governments.
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