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A Way Forward on Climate and Energy

January 31, 2011

Timothy E. Wirth, President, United Nations Foundation 

For the past several years, the goal of a comprehensive global agreement on climate change has drifted out of political reach. The world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, the United States and China, have balked at national emission caps, the central feature of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, even as global temperatures rise. Last year was one of the warmest years in a period of steadily warming temperatures.

Yet national and state governments around the world are showing the way forward on climate by moving toward a new energy economy, characterized by the smarter use of energy and technological innovation to make clean energy affordable.

The UN Foundation advocated for such a building block strategy —encouraging steps that nations can take in their own economic self-interest while also reducing their emissions of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. The most recent UN climate talks held in Cancún in December started to bring the world community into line with this approach.

The Cancún Agreements encouraged the world to act on climate change through a number of separate measures on deforestation, technology cooperation, adaptation, and finance. Similar opportunities still exist on energy efficiency, renewable energy, agriculture and land use, and the reduction of powerful warming agents such as methane, refrigeration gases, and black carbon.

Nearly 20 years ago, at the Rio Earth Summit, the world embraced the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was signed by President George H.W. Bush and quickly ratified by the U.S. Senate. World leaders will gather again in Rio next year to discuss sustainable development; the theme of that meeting will be the green economy.

This is a field in which the United States cannot afford to lag. China is already setting the pace on energy efficiency — it has improved 20 percent over the past five years and has committed to continue those gains —and on renewable energy, in which China reportedly plans to invest $738 billion over the next 10 years to establish its global leadership.

China is far from alone in this. The other BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, and India), along with Japan, Korea, and the European Union, have taken impressive steps in the same direction. In the United States, the states have led even as Congress has failed to act. For example, in November, California voters overwhelmingly rejected the oil industry’s attempt to overturn the state’s comprehensive global warming legislation.

Renewable energy is particularly attractive to developing countries where the electricity grid is absent or unreliable, and where the dominant fuel source is often costly imported oil. But investments in energy efficiency are cost-effective for every country in the world. In December, the U.N. General Assembly designated 2012 as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All. Building on the report last April by the Secretary-General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change, UN-Energy, with the UN Foundation in a key supporting role, will lead a Global Campaign for Universal Energy Access, built around national actions in support of the Year.

Lack of access to sustainable, affordable, reliable energy — from low-carbon sources where feasible — is a critical barrier to reaching the Millennium Development Goals, particularly for poverty reduction. Some 1.4 billion people lack access to electricity, and a billion more are dependent on unreliable or intermittent sources.

Almost three billion people also lack access to modern fuels for cooking and heating, and the smoke from their fires is a major threat to health and the environment. This has been the focus of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, launched by the UN Foundation in September with the endorsement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Alliance is an ambitious public-private initiative to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and combat climate change by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions.

Emissions of black carbon — soot from forest burning, cookstoves, and diesel engines — are the second largest contributors to global warming after carbon dioxide, but have a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere — weeks, not years. Immediate action with known technologies — preventing deforestation and using more efficient stoves, cleaner fuels, and cleaner engines — is a building block that could slow the effects of climate change for a decade or more.

The core of the building block strategy is to accomplish what we can today and use that as a base to build toward more difficult goals tomorrow. This will engender trust among nations and confidence that the transition to a low-carbon economy is both possible and beneficial.

Were the Cancún talks disappointing or encouraging? The answer is yes to both.

The goal of the U.N. climate negotiations has been, and should continue to be, a global agreement to reduce emissions dramatically, decisively, and comprehensively. That is not politically possible today. But rather than bemoan human frailty, we must make what progress we can, when we can, where we can. The worsening impacts of climate change — on our poorest neighbors today and on our children and their children tomorrow — demand no less.

This article appears in the Winter 2011 edition of Global Insights. Read the rest of the issue here.