Durban climate change conference: why we should stick with the UN talks

| 10th November 2011
Carbon dioxide emissions
Despite a growing consensus in favour of alternatives such as 'carbon clubs' and bilateral agreements, Friends of the Earth's Craig Bennett says the UN is our best hope for tackling climate change

Progress at the UN climate talks has been painfully slow with year after year ending in deadlock as short term economic interests, rather than protecting our environment or people’s wellbeing, dominate decision-making priorities.

And the outcome of last year’s talks in Cancun, Mexico, opened the door for a dismantling of the UN Climate Convention in favour of a voluntary bottom-up system where countries decide their own targets and where there is no overall cap on global emissions.

But despite appearances, a lifeline for the world does still exist. A legally-binding international agreement – hand in hand with national efforts – remains our best hope of cutting global emissions at the speed scientists say is needed to avoid dangerous climate change.

Frustrations are running high, and the world’s poorest are getting desperate – climate change is already hitting them hardest. With the International Energy Agency warning "irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change" unless we switch to clean energy now, it’s not surprising academics are calling for a new way forward.

The idea of countries bidding to cut carbon on condition other countries take action too might seem more attractive at first glance than the top-down approach to slashing emissions that the world has long been pursuing. But bilateral agreements by way of a ‘carbon club’ system for the most polluting countries is not the way to go – something governments and green campaign groups do agree on.

As well as creating confusion over tackling climate change, with different baselines, temperature targets and timelines, bilateral agreements would be even more vulnerable to short-term political and economic interests. Allowing the big players to decide their own level of cuts won’t help to tackle climate change fast enough. Nor will allowing them to offset their emissions by paying for low-carbon development elsewhere.

The UN has estimated that this approach of ‘voluntary’ pledges will lead to a catastrophic five degrees of warming which would threaten the natural systems we depend on and the lives of billions of people.

The only way we’ll avoid planetary disaster is if rich countries cut their own emissions in line with climate science, as well as helping poorer countries develop more cleanly. After all it’s only fair – rich countries were responsible for causing climate change in the first place.

That’s not to say that emerging and developing nations shouldn’t commit to emissions cuts too – we need bold political action the world over and every nation must play its part. But what we need is a democratic and transparent process, not a system modelled on the World Trade Organisation that will allow the big boys to bully poorer countries through dodgy backroom deals.

Of course, seeking a strong and fair climate agreement does not prevent other kinds of action at the national and international scale. In fact, it’s vital that we engage in the fight against climate change at all levels.

With one in five people around the world currently without access to electricity and a further 40 per cent of the world’s population still using traditional biomass for heating, it’s time to switch the billions being invested in fossil fuel extraction to supporting clean energy for all.

That’s why Friends of the Earth is calling for a new global fund to urgently provide access to clean energy in developing countries and kick-start a renewable energy revolution – while also pushing the British Government to make the UK a world leader in clean energy.

Britain already has a ground-breaking national law in place – the Climate Change Act – which Friends of the Earth led the campaign for. It commits us to slashing UK emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050, but we need urgent Government action to achieve it.

The UK is perfectly placed to run on clean energy – around 66,000 jobs could be created by 2020 in offshore wind alone if it’s given the financial backing it needs. We also have a fledging solar power industry that supports 25,000 people, but it’s taken a devastating direct hit from the Treasury’s axe, which has just cut solar funding by half.

We’re calling on David Cameron to step in and investigate the power and influence of the Big Six energy companies that are keeping us hooked on expensive dirty power, and give clean British energy providers the financial support they need.

National action is needed, but climate change is an international crisis and it requires international efforts to tackle it. Every country has a responsibility to clean up its economy in order to cut emissions - and a fair, science-based and legally-binding agreement is the only way of holding them to account.

Craig Bennett is Friends of the Earth’s Director of Policy and Campaigns



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