Sir David King, University of Oxford
Following the meeting of leaders and negotiators at COP17 in Durban, the main focus of discussion has been the Kyoto protocol and the need for a binding international agreement on climate change. This, in my view, is a redundant exercise. The real driver for change in climate negotiations is the call for voluntary national commitments that was issued in 2009 at COP 15 in Copenhagen. Indeed, more has been achieved post-Copenhagen and Cancun through voluntary and nationally-agreed carbon emissions reductions than in the 15-year circus of negotiations since Kyoto.
Even before 2009, when President Obama arrived in Copenhagen without the backing of Congress for an international cap-and-trade process, it was clear that Kyoto was over. For a start, the first-round agreement of a 5% emissions reduction from Annex 1 (developed) countries was woefully insufficient, given the scale of the challenge posed by climate change. But more importantly, it has been evident for some years now that the top-down approach to climate negotiations proposed at Kyoto was never going to work. At every climate conference since Kyoto, countries have arrived at the table committed in principle to ratification and global agreement, but in practice many have put their own perceived national economic interests first. Obviously, the scope for progress within this model is severely limited.
Now, however, the uncertainties surrounding the Kyoto process have opened the way for an alternative approach to climate negotiations. It is an approach that was formalised in Cancun but was kick-started years previously in the UK under the then Government. In 2003, the UK became the first nation to announce – voluntarily – that it would reduce its carbon emissions, by 60% by 2050. In my former role as Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, I travelled the world to tell other countries about this commitment, throwing it on the table like a bargaining chip. The idea was to encourage foreign governments to follow our lead and declare their own voluntary targets. And on a number of occasions it worked.
In part in response to the UK’s ‘aggressively competitive’ announcements (as they were perceived), the Brazilian Government declared it would halt all deforestation in Brazil by 2025. The Chinese opened the door to lowemission technology, and the European Union Carbon Trading Scheme was signed by all 27 member states. And in the years since Copenhagen and Cancun, 85 countries – together responsible for 85% of the world’s emissions – have now announced voluntary climate commitments.
It is this kind of muscular bilateralism which I believe points the way forward for climate negotiations and, ultimately, for an international agreement on emissions reductions. The voluntary national-pathway approach has certainly galvanised leaders in developing countries with Mexico, South Africa and Indonesia, amongst others, announcing commitments in recent years. Even Rwanda, one of the least developed nations in the world, has developed a new Green Growth and Climate Resilience strategy with the aim of achieving sustainable economic development – a strategy conceived by the Smith School at Oxford University together with the Rwandan Government. Rwanda’s strategy was developed over nine months in consultation with hundreds of stakeholders across government Ministries and departments and aims to mainstream low carbon development and climate adaptation into all sectors of the economy. The strategy shows that low carbon development is win-win for Rwanda as it will reduce dependence on imported oil, promoting energy security and growth in the local economy. It also highlights the economic impact of climate change and urgent need to adapt to changes in climate already affecting food and energy production. In this proactive approach, Rwanda has shown vision and as President Kagame said: ‘If it can be done in Rwanda, it can be done anywhere."
At side meetings at the COP, progress was reported on actions and commitments in developing countries and others. The South Korean government has taken several giant leaps forward in establishing national policies and actions and promoting global collaboration in setting up the Global Green Growth Institute. The President has set up a Presidential committee on Green Growth and we heard that annually 3% of GDP would be committed to the overall programme. Remarkably, the mayor of Seoul is in the process of greening the city, taking out a major highway and replacing it with walkways and cycle routes and reopening the river through the city.
Ethiopia now has a comprehensive strategy for a low carbon economy. Their analysis demonstrates that the biggest emissions are from the agricultural sector and their green growth strategy was completed a month ago and implementation will be included in their five year growth and transformation plan. Brazil has moved on from its national climate change plan developed in late 2008, to the establishment of a full policy including an avoided deforestation target of 72% by 2017. Overall, their commitment is to an impressive 36-38% reduction in GHG emissions (CO2e) by 2020 compared with BAU, and we heard that this amounted to continued economic growth with effective stabilisation of emissions. The UAE also presented their plans for de-fossilising their economy.
My vision is that, in the long term, this bottomup route to tackling climate change will ultimately achieve the internationally cohesive agreements that the Kyoto process has sought – and failed – to deliver. Because with 32 countries now participating in lowcarbon trading schemes around the world, we will one day need a single commodity price for carbon to unify these diverse national efforts. With its global influence and powers of sanction, the WTO is more likely to drive this programme forward than the UN. If it were to do so, I strongly believe that by 2020 we could arrive at a single and universally ratified system for carbon emissions reductions (as I think many would agree, far better to reach this goal later than not at all). Once established, this process would then need to be ratcheted up to reach the intended commitment of maintaining a temperature increase of less than 2°C.
For many countries and individuals around the world a new pathway has opened up – one we should all now follow.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Sir David King is the Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford, and was the Chief Scientific Advisor to the British government from 2000 to 2007.