17 December 2008

Is the future of Planet Earth more secure after Poznan?

Jonathan Wootliff, The Jakarta Post, December 17, 2008

No doubt members of Indonesia's delegation to the UN climate summit will be pleased to leave the freezing temperatures of Poznan in Poland. But with these talks now concluded, is the future of our planet now more secure?

Well, that's a tough question to answer. But as a long-time observer of these complex, and often frustrating, intergovernmental climate negotiations, I can only say that it is time that will tell.

Poznan, which was attended by some 185 environment ministers, represented the halfway point between last year's Bali summit and the all-important meeting in the Danish capital of Copenhagen next December, when the successor to the Kyoto treaty must be agreed upon.

With developing countries offering more emission cuts than anticipated and richer nations in many cases offering fewer, global climate negotiators wrapped up the lackluster talks that UN officials said, nonetheless, kept the world on the path toward a new treaty by next December.

There is much work to be done over the next 12 months if the governments of the world are to make a deal that can be successful in combating the dangers of climate change.

"We got the bare minimum of what we needed from the talks. Now there's a lot to do and less than a year to do it," said Jennifer Haverkamp, International Climate Policy Director for the influential nongovernment organization, Environmental Defense Fund.

Negotiations had been hampered by growing worries in Europe, long the world leader in pushing a climate deal, about the costs of cutting emissions as its industries come under pressure during a worsening financial recession.

Despite those concerns, Europe managed to sign its own climate agreement, committing the bloc of 27 nations to an average 20 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, as well as a doubling of the use of renewable energy and a 20 percent boost in energy efficiency over the same period.

"Poznan achieved what it was supposed to but it ended on a rather grim note," said summit-weary UN climate change chief, Yvo de Boer.

In spite of tense, last-minute negotiations which at times looked as though they would fall apart, last year's talks in Bali had a far more upbeat conclusion.

Indeed, it was far more than the 35 degree temperature between the tropical climes of Bali and Poland's freezing winter that differentiated these two events.

The Poznan talks lacked the urgency and ambition of 2007, when the so-called Bali Roadmap was introduced. In Bali, a core group of 40 ministers stayed up one night in negotiations almost until dawn. In contrast, one critical evening in Poznan, when talks came to a crunch, many in the same group sent deputies to negotiate and apparently went to a party.

At least developing countries offered more greenhouse emission cuts than anticipated and negotiators agreed on principles of financing for a long-planned fund to help the world's poorest and most vulnerable nations adapt to the effects of climate change. This will surely boost Indonesia's ability to offer a positive contribution to solving the climate challenge.

In spite of the bitter complaints that the fund would not provide adequate financing, this can certainly be seen as a positive outcome.

And basic questions over an equitable balance of emissions cuts between richer and poorer nations for the most part remained unresolved, particularly because many richer nations balked at making firm or ambitious promises to cut emissions in the coming decade.

Experts now agree that an injection of fresh energy from the top is needed to secure a new treaty after somewhat faded hopes in Poznan. Many are pinning hopes on the U.S. president-elect, Barack Obama, who, in contrast to George W Bush, has promised a far more aggressive policy to tackle climate change.

So as the world's politicians continue to wrangle over the intricacies of carbon credits and the like, our environment precariously hangs in the balance.

The next 12 months will be absolutely critical.

We should be in no doubt that the future health of our planet depends on agreeing on substantial, legally binding commitments by the nations of the world to avoid catastrophic climate impacts.

But perhaps we are expecting too much of our politicians. The Head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Julia Marton-Lefevre, proposed an innovative approach to mitigate the precarious and uncertain outcome of these international negotiations.

"These talks focus too much on what governments should do. I'd like to see meetings of ordinary people around the world to discuss what they can do to change lifestyles and cut emissions," she said.

I wholeheartedly agree. There's much that us ordinary citizens can do to safeguard the future health of Planet Earth.

Jonathan Wootliff is an independent sustainable development consultant specializing in the building of productive relationships between companies and NGOs. He can be contacted at jonathan@wootliff.com

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