Climate Change: a successor to the Kyoto Protocol needs the powerful

2013-06-10 12:16

Climate change effects are increasingly becoming evident everywhere and the international community is getting down to brass tacks to establish a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol. The envisaged international treaty is unlikely to hold water, should principal carbon emitters shun or not join it.

With carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere reaching a milestone of 400 ppm (parts per million) and climate change-related disasters manifesting themselves globally, the planned treaty is set to be finalized by 2015 and take effect from 2020.

Indisputably, the international community is in a race against time to curb further carbon emissions. On the other hand, mankind is becoming more aware of what the nature and extent of global warming's extreme weather conditions can be but inaction is still worrying.

The Kyoto Protocol's successor needs key emitters

Similar to the Kyoto Protocol, the intended international treaty on climate change might not live to our expectations if key emitters are not to be covered. In a concerted effort, Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted the Kyoto Protocol in 1997; which came into force in 2005 as a legal binding treaty to compel and encourage countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

The first commitment period (2008-2012) expired, with the modest success due to – among others – non-participation of chief economies accountable for the largest proportion of carbon emissions. Hypothetically, the second commitment period (2013-2020) is in force but still, key polluters are unwilling to make concessions and join hands in combating a common problem.

With over 190 signatories, the Kyoto Protocol thus far lacks the critical involvement of countries that have not signed and ratified and/or withdrew from the pact. Notably, the United States (US) and China have long dug their heels in and refused to join the Protocol due to long-standing differences on climate change. Other noteworthy countries that are currently not bound by the agreement include (but not limited to): Canada, Japan, Russia, Brazil, Belarus, India, and South Sudan.

Certainly, national interests ought to be dominant in international relations; and domestic forces largely influence and at times dictate every country's foreign relations and decisions. This applies to any international agreement, and a treaty on carbon emissions is no exception.

Climate change as a global phenomenon seeks effective international response or proactive engagement. In eliminating carbon emissions countries may have to slash the their main sources of carbon emissions, primarily the driving forces of economic growth and development through industrialization.

Some of the abovementioned countries and top carbon emitters are reluctant to exhibit their leadership qualities by taking the initiative in spearheading climate change mitigation efforts. Then, how likely are we going to see them join (if not lead) the international community ahead of the 2015 pact?

From the Durban climate talks in 2011 to Doha in 2012, and leading to the Warsaw gathering this year, our representatives are adamant that the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action instigated treaty will be in place and on time, so as to limit the rise in the earth's temperature to 2°C – a threshold climate scientists argue would exacerbate climate change implications.

Bonn, Germany, is currently hosting climate talks and one of the pondered issues has to with the pact design. Precisely, how (and by whom) are carbon emissions cuts plans/targets going to be drawn or drafted?

Should governments independently sketch their own carbon emissions standards as they deem fit or should the international community take precedence and assume responsibility in that regard?

The envisaged treaty must contain in it, overarching terms and emission targets that are mandatory to but harmonious with country-specific plans. Industrialised, developed and developing countries must all be provided for, in relation to their carbon emissions amounts. If countries are to draw their own plans, implementations may very well be controversial and we might just have an 'old wine in a new bottle'.

The climate change blame-game we've seen over the past years between and among countries should not vitiate nor overshadow negotiations and positive decisions leading to the 2015 pact. Equally important, these countries should not attempt to sway the international community's decisions in their favour; it would be an injustice to other less-affluent countries adversely affected by climate change.

A turning-point in Sino-American relations is that the two countries have committed themselves to a joint climate change effort they hope would aid their respective countries in reducing carbon emissions.

Briefly, it is commendable to witness the world's two largest economies and emitters taking action pertinent to global endeavours to overcome climate change. On a bilateral level, the US and China plainly want to rekindle their old relations as exemplified by presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping's recent and first ever meeting for a two-day summit.

It is on a multilateral level that these countries should engage more, particularly with regards to climate change. Nonetheless, the US-China partnership on climate change is perhaps just what everyone wanted to see; and probably a breakthrough towards a vigorous climate treaty on the international front.

To be all-inclusive, the nature and scope of the expected treaty should be such that every country on this planet is – absolutely or relatively – aligned to its mandate, satisfied with its proviso and willing to uphold it’s latter and spirit.

Increased public awareness of climate change impacts

In light of countless climatic catastrophes, public awareness of climate change repercussions seems to have peaked. Extreme weather events continue to ravage the rich and powerful countries; the poor and weak countries, with the largest segment of the world's population remain undoubtedly the most susceptible.

In the recent past, the US experienced catastrophic events that sparked some media frenzy on whether such disasters could be ascribed to climate change or not. The Oklahoma tornado and Hurricane Sandy are cases in point.

From a layman's perspective, every destructive climate event owes its occurrence to climate change. Most reports argue that climate change is not responsible for tornadoes and hurricanes. Yes, there is no causal link between quasi-climatic events (Hurricane Sandy and the Oklahoma twister) and climate change. Puzzling climate science, isn't it?

Importantly, the mere fact that people in the US and elsewhere attributed the disasters of that magnitude to climate change signifies an increased level of awareness. No one continent is immune from climate change effects. We are aware of chronic droughts, melting glaciers and rising sea levels, as well as extreme storms among others.

Given this fundamental understanding, critical individual responses – complementary to international efforts – should be underway. On an individual level, reductions in electricity usage, safe disposal of garbage, the use of public transport and reforestation have always been touted as means to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Developing and less affluent countries (most African) are at risk because climate change-related disasters come with utter destruction of property and extensive loss of life. Africa ravaged by conflict simply cannot afford to be plagued by severe weather events.

Action against climate change must not continue to be deferred; damage caused to the atmosphere is irreversible. The future is still in our hands.

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