Press releases

Tuesday 21 Oct 1997

A time for choice

Bonn, 17 October 1997 - The United Nations Environment Programme keeps watch over this Earth. We report on the destruction of forests, pollution levels in our oceans, the decline of fish stocks and of shrinking biodiversity. We measure the expansion of the deserts and count environmental refugees. We provide information on the quality of water and the availability of food. We catalogue the fragility of the ozone layer, air quality in cities and the future of the climate system.

It would be arrogant for us to suggest that any of these problems should take precedence over the others. They are all symptomatic of our neglect and indifference and all need our immediate attention and remedy.

However, I will say this. There is no problem more deserving of our undivided attention than climate change. The atmosphere is the common link to the oceans, the earth and the cryosphere. If we do not act now to save our climate from the changes associated with greenhouse gas induced global warming we put additional strain on forests, rivers, oceans, peoples and animals. We suffer not merely inconvenience of unpredictable weather patterns; we risk an inhospitable future.

Why are we convinced that climate change is inevitable and that the consequences will be unwelcome? The 1995 assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change draws such conclusions. It tempers them with a catalogue of unresolved issues and identifies those illusive uncertainties which yet must be resolved before we can recognize the face of future climates. Its footprint is here and those that insist that the rush of record warm years is coincidental, are stretching coincidence to its limit.

The scientific community has served us with honesty and integrity. It will continue to refine our knowledge of the impacts of global warming and sea level rise, the identification and quantification of feedback relationships. Our anticipation of when climate change will bite may be unclear but the certainty that it must occur is absolute. We would be foolish if we did not make our choices based on the best available science.

It is inexcusable that we are not now putting in place precautionary no-regrets policies that will ease our confrontation with climate change. It is inexplicable to me that we cannot agree on achievable and low-cost strategies that can limit the extent of climate change and delay its onset.

It is inconceivable to me that the world community would allow Kyoto to be a failure. That we would be prepared to say to the world that we are not serious enough about global warming to agree on a regulatory protocol of sufficient strength to delay and limit climate change - that we are prepared to sacrifice the environment for jobs and economic growth. But as of today the signs are not good.

Governments are sending signals which although shrouded in ambiguity, still indicate a reluctance to honour earlier commitments to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The excuses they offer are various but primarily come down to two things, they are either unconvinced by the urgency or immediate seriousness of the issue and as such cannot decide the appropriate level of response. Or they plead economic circumstances. Other issues of national importance require precedence and a first call upon available resources. The message is `we want to help but this isn't the time'.

But surely, this is the time - the markers on our pledges are being called in and our ability to pay our dues has never been surer. In many parts of the world, economies are at their healthiest. The New York Stock Exchange, for example, is at record highs with security for business and profit for investor. Ironically, booms like these fuel the furnaces of industry and adds to the emissions we need to control. Is this then the dilemma? Will emission control be a brake on business, or a pause in progress and profits?

So the signals are coming `we don't want to do too much or too soon'. If others are also wavering then they are keenly aware that those that have turned their backs on earlier commitments might also gain economic advantage down the line, unhampered by a requirement to limit emissions to a predetermined level and clear to develop and pollute, and most of all profit, in a free market, free of restrictions. Under such circumstances, a binding protocol has neither meaning nor value if some industrialised countries maintain a right to uncontrolled pollution.

Today I want to say a few things about economics and politics. Economic problems do have economic solutions and even though some of these may be unpalatable they must be considered and, in the absence of more attractive options, they have to be applied. There is little enthusiasm for tax-gathering but the effectiveness of a carbon fuel levy in reducing carbon emissions is unquestionable. Price changes in the oil market are mirrored by changes in emission levels. Of course, the disagreeable consequences involve the knock-on effect of increased manufacturing and transportation costs. But where fuel costs are accompanied by compensatory efficiencies, hardships are minimized. It is a fact that relatively cheap fuel induces in us a carelessness as to its true value. More fuel is used to convey fewer goods; high performance, but not necessarily fuel efficient, vehicles gather on roads which are increasingly inadequate for either the volume of traffic or the capability of the vehicle. The reality of progress is often lines of motionless single-occupant motor vehicles, engines alive, collectively providing greenhouse gases, residual heat and toxic emissions. All this contributing not one bit to our national economies but instead indicative of unstructured development.

The good news is that many local authorities have outpaced their national counterparts in seeking and applying solutions to transport problems and energy inefficiencies. There are now hundreds of municipalities applying jointly agreed guidelines for greenhouse gas emission controls: mass-transport development; restrictions on private transport involving the number of passengers carried; zoning restrictions; exhaust and noise limits. Permits and levies have not only got cities moving again but saved or made money for urban development. Similar cost saving efficiencies in energy consumption in the domestic, business and manufacturing sectors are redefining local pride and providing examples which when aggregated nationally contribute significantly and cost-effectively to our future.

While on the subject of good news I should also mention that some progress has been made through voluntary initiatives with the private sector. Companies and, in some cases, entire industrial sectors have made quantifiable commitments to reduce their CO2 emissions.

As these local and voluntary initiatives demonstrate, there is no universal panacea, no single solution to greenhouse gas emission control and reduction. Instead, there is scope for flexibility and ingenuity. In my mind the resistance to fulfilling global obligations speak to major weaknesses not in our technology but in our ability to innovate.

A recently released US Energy Department study showed that the cost of a vigorous national commitment to developing technologies was likely to be more than balanced by savings in energy bills - "this analysis shows that what's good for the environment also can be good for the economy". Innovations in cleaner production technology can clearly increase the productivity of energy use by a factor of 4 to 10.

Another most promising economic opportunity for carbon control involves the initiation of a tradeable permit system involving national carbon credits to be used or disposed of for profit depending on national circumstances. This innovative scheme has captured the imagination of many countries and businesses particularly where other opportunities for change have been limited. Early exploration of schemes amenable to future emission trading application involving emission control and carbon capture investment by donor countries in currently less technologically endowed nations is part of the Activities Implemented Jointly (AIJ) experiment conducted in accordance with the Berlin Mandate. It would not be proper to prejudge the success of AIJ before review of the pilot phase after the year 2000. Nevertheless, promising aspects of the programme have been identified.

Joint implementation does provide an opportune way to facilitate technology transfer and equally important, technology sharing among participating nations. However, I would sound a word of caution. Technology transfer is a fundamental element of the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Developing countries have a right of access to emission control technology under the Convention. Any suggestion that technology availability might be conditional on involvement in joint implementation projects must be clearly resisted.

The criterion by which we must abide is equity. Parties to the Convention are equal partners in its execution after due recognition of the special circumstances that might apply. The rights of all partners must be respected, including the right of access, free of conditionality to technology. The enthusiasm for carbon trading is higher in the North than the South. A more universal acceptance of the idea will follow confirmation that Joint Implementation provides a win-win-win situation - investment possibilities for the donor, development opportunities for the host country and advantages for the environment in the form of a cleaner atmosphere and a stable climate.

It is my hope that the momentum established under the AIJ pilot phase will encourage new investment into renewable sources of energy. It is my belief that the current confidence in the continued availability of relatively cheap carbon based fuels has inhibited the race to find viable non-polluting alternatives. Where, in the early days of the climate change scare - renewable energy sources were perceived as the principal alternative to fossil fuels; twenty years later, wind and wave energy, biofuels and solar power are minor adjuncts to the continuing growth of fossil fuel based power generation and consumption. There is a need for enhanced research and application into renewable energy sources and for early demonstration of their applicability and cost-effectiveness by the high energy consuming developed nations followed by the introduction of proven technologies into developing regions.

And now to the politics.

It requires only a simple grasp of mathematics to calculate that developed countries alone cannot achieve a goal of global emission stabilization. It is clear that developing country energy consumption is set to rise significantly. I would hope that they will, where possible, enact voluntary constraints and introduce voluntary emission reduction or carbon capture programmes. I would also urge that this new energy regime is sustainable involving renewables and the application of the most environmentally friendly technology where fossil fuel consumption is unavoidable. It would be criminal neglect if, by default, we encouraged investment in polluting technology with planned operation over decades when better and safer technology is available.

None of the numbers under consideration in current negotiations come close to adequately responding to the problem as described by an overwhelming consensus of global climate experts. Yet numbers we must have - as a starting point.

Equally, we must focus on two additional things.

One is that we must move from a voluntary agreement to a legally binding one. The failure since Rio speak volumes about the inadequacy of a voluntary agreement just as the success of the Montreal protocol shows the wisdom of a binding agreement. (Obviously, binding commitments with trade-related penalties will bode well for the establishment and maintenance of the all-important level playing field that will remove the advantages accruing to those who fail to comply.)

And the other is that we must also have in place a proper review mechanism that enables countries not only to take account of new information and climate surprises but equips them to take appropriate responsive action.

Even the largest numbers for emission reduction being considered will be meaningless if they are not binding. And when it becomes clear that these numbers are vastly insufficient, this agreement will be meaningless unless there is a built-in mechanism to adapt it to reality.

Five years ago in the lead-up to Rio we were preoccupied with the numbers, to no avail. And five years from now we will be again. What needs to change is not so much the numbers but the structure and flexibility of the agreement. It is not so much how fast this train is moving that matters, but that it is securely on rails that will keep it running in the right direction, and that we have the means of changing tracks to avoid a disaster if need be.

My belief is that our anxiety about the impact of climate change is not as powerful as our anxiety over the political consequences of changing the way we do things. The way we get to the office, how we heat or cool our houses, the energy efficiency of industry, and so on. Change is frightening to most people, but with strong courageous leadership people can learn to cope with those fears.

This treaty is not only about alleviating an environmental problem. It is about how we cope with a changing world - together. How we share burdens fairly ensuring that no country will be put in a disadvantageous position relative to other countries as a consequence of doing its part? How we build confidence that a formula is in place to ensure that all countries will develop and be competitive. How we recognize the strengths and capabilities of each nation. Until this foundation is laid, until the fundamental principles of burden- sharing are agreed that success will escape us. Getting us to this position will require the intervention of a level of leadership that goes well beyond the bean-counting. This is when the planet needs its statesmen and stateswomen to come forward and say that nothing less will do.

A successful response to the climate change challenge will be built on sound science, feasible economics and socially acceptable politics. It would be a distortion to see the solution only through the prism of science. Equally we will not be well served through excessive faith in markets.

Einstein said that in crisis, imagination is better than knowledge. We need to know more. But we also know enough. Enough to appreciate the risk of climate change and fear its consequences. Enough to make choices: hard choices; perhaps expensive choices; but ultimately affordable and necessary ones. Kyoto will test our imaginations and our will. Kyoto gives us an opportunity to choose a secure future or the risk of a climate beyond control.


A time for choice

Statement by Ms. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Executive Director of UNEP, at Globe Parlamentarians Climate Change Event

Tuesday 21 Oct 1997
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