Countries Must Step Up Efforts to Address Essential, but Unresolved Issues in Advance of Climate Change Conference, Experts Tell Second Committee

13 October 2009

Countries Must Step Up Efforts to Address Essential, but Unresolved Issues in Advance of Climate Change Conference, Experts Tell Second Committee

13 October 2009
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-fourth General Assembly

Second Committee

Panel Discussion (AM)

Countries Must Step Up Efforts to Address Essential, but Unresolved Issues

in Advance of Climate Change Conference, Experts Tell Second Committee

Panel Addresses:  ‘Climate Change Negotiations:  Road to Copenhagen’

Countries must step up efforts to address essential, but unresolved issues in advance of the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Robert Orr, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Strategic Planning, today told the Second Committee (Economic and Financial) during a panel discussion on “Climate Change Negotiations: Road to Copenhagen”. 

With only seven weeks to go before the Conference in December, key questions such as financing, adaptation and the structure of an agreement remained wide open, he said.  “We have a lot of work to do between now and Copenhagen and the pace of negotiations is not commensurate with need.”

While leaders of the world continued to be engaged, the recent climate change talks in Bangkok had not yielded needed progress and there was a risk of countries “slipping back to old, bad habits”, he said, and warned of “fashionable” pessimism at this point in the process.  “Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophesy that won’t get us the deal we need,” he said, adding that clear-eyed realism might instead get negotiations back on track.

On the question of financing, he said it was the indispensable adhesive that would glue together an agreement, and while world leaders had talked in New York about financing, more specific proposals were needed.  “We need to get down to brass tacks in Copenhagen,” he said.  “We are running out of time.”

Mr. Orr highlighted recent pledges, including Japan’s promise to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent compared to 1990 levels in the next 10 years, which he described as an “extraordinary step”.  He also mentioned Norway’s proposal to reduce carbon emissions by 40 per cent by 2020, compared to 1990 levels –- a toughening of its previous target of 30 per cent.  However, he also pointed out that countries’ collective reductions amounted to a range between 11 per cent and 18 per cent, far short of the range identified as needed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- a 25 per cent to 40 per cent cut. 

Another panellist, Michael Levi, Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations, warned against fixating on the targets themselves, saying that trying to greatly broaden them in Copenhagen would not be constructive.  He also counselled against focusing too much on a fully-complete deal in December and argued that it was worthwhile to spend a bit more time to get a comprehensive agreement.  The session should not be titled “The Road to Copenhagen” but rather, he said, “The Road through Copenhagen.”

Countries should focus on policies and measures at the national level and, internationally, the creation of a strong regime for measurement and review of what countries were doing, he said, adding that developing a coercive system wouldn’t work.  Instead, he hoped for “a virtuous cycle of enhanced ambition” in which countries made their efforts to combat climate change transparent and visible.  Creating something that was legally binding could be necessary, but that might take a long time, he said.

In terms of the United States, he said that Congress currently discussed a 17 per cent reduction of emissions, a target that could be substantially tighter, although it wasn’t a fundamental problem, he said.  “Deeper reductions would be better, but it’s important not to fixate on that number,” he said.  From an environmental perspective, it wasn’t a “do or die difference”.  What mattered was a political transformation.  On the subject of timelines, he said that United States legislation probably wouldn’t be passed before the Copenhagen Conference, but might be achieved next year.  “It may be difficult to deal with the United States on these issues, but it is essential to,” he said.

Massimo Tavoni, Research Associate at the Princeton Environmental Institute and Senior Researcher at Eni Enrico Mattei Foundation, said in the past 20 years very little had been achieved to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  It was necessary to look at Copenhagen and beyond and to revise emission reduction targets in line with a historical sense of fairness.  That should be based on common but differentiated responsibility, rather than just blaming people in developing countries for population and emissions growth.  The many United Nations and World Bank studies on income distribution were mostly on poverty, but they could be used to understand climate data and guide the world toward a low-carbon economy.  That would not happen in five years.  It would be a slow, dynamic process.

The world’s population would swell from 6.5 billion today to 8 billion by 2030, and emissions would grow in widely varying degrees across and within nations, he said.  But, only a small percentage of the population was responsible for the problem.  Some 600 million people -- or 10 per cent of the global population -- emitted half the world’s emissions; 1.5 billion people were responsible for 75 per cent of the global total.  A person in the United States emitted, on average, 20 tons of carbon emissions annually, while the global average per capita was just 5 tons.  That disparity, coupled with the growing middle-class and changing lifestyles, were important factors in determining how to cut emissions to the level needed to limit global temperature rise to 2°C. 

Mr. Tavoni said global poverty-reduction strategies must go hand in hand with climate-change policy.  It was possible to allow people, particularly low‑carbon emitters, to meet basic energy needs and, at the same time, mitigate climate change.  “The world’s poor do not need to be denied fossil fuels,” he said, adding that, by 2030, annual emissions would be negligible -- 1 ton per capita -- for 3 billion people.

Tariq Banuri, Director of the Division for Sustainable Development, said climate change was largely viewed as a zero sum game -- a line of thinking that inhibited cooperation and effective action.  A development approach based on sovereign, conditional and joint commitments could transform climate change in a positive sum game.  That would require joint goals focusing on full employment and energy security in the North and “catch up” growth and energy access in the South.  It would require investment, good policy guidance and strategic direction that allowed developing countries to leapfrog to a low-carbon economy.  Moreover, modern energy must be made affordable and equally distributed worldwide.  Human development improved as energy needs were met.  But, that could only happen through effective strategies and front-loaded investment.  There was a strong relationship between energy prices, affordability of development and human development.

“If you want to achieve human development targets, you have to ensure that energy is cheap,” he said.  Fossil fuels were cheap, but solar fuel was not.  That led developing countries, with limited access to modern energy, to use inefficient, but cheap natural biomass and low-quality energy in buses, appliances and building materials.  There was great pressure on developing countries to mitigate climate change by cutting emissions by 30 per cent, while industrialized countries cut them by 10 per cent.  The key was to use investment as a driver, so that developing countries could leapfrog and not “pollute first, clean up later”, he said.  Common targets must also be set for renewable energy and investments, with the “magic figure” of bringing investment to $1 per watt. 

Jessica Seddon Wallack, Director of the Centre for Development Finance at the Institute for Financial Management and Research in Chennai, India, said the focus on implementation would matter greatly on the road to Copenhagen.  The emphasis on transparency should be national and global, and based on the Rio Principle that individuals should have appropriate access to climate change information from their respective Governments.  Support and capacity-building were also essential.  Black carbon and ozone were increasingly recognized in the policy community as aspects of air pollution that significantly affected global warming.  There was debate over whether they should be part of the Copenhagen discussions as well, with compelling arguments that doing so would buy more time against climate change, on the one hand, and that it would be a distraction from a necessary focus on carbon dioxide emissions, on the other. 

Committee Chairperson Park In-kook ( Republic of Korea) said several pertinent issues must still be addressed:  the extent to which industrialized countries were willing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and major developing countries were willing to limit the growth of theirs; how such efforts would be financed; and who was going to manage the money. 

Last month, the United Nations Secretary-General said all countries must work together in Copenhagen towards a common, long-term goal of limiting global temperature rise to safe levels consistent with science, and ambitious emission reduction targets by industrialized countries by 2020.  Developing countries must limit their emissions’ growth, while pursuing green growth with substantial financial and technological support.   Everyone must reach a deal that:  strengthened the world’s ability to cope with inevitable changes in climate; was properly financed; and included an equitable global governance structure that addressed developing countries’ needs. 

During the discussion with participants, one delegate said the Copenhagen agreement should be legally binding, have a robust accounting and compliance system and ensure the level of emissions reduction needed to limit global temperature rise to 2°C.  He asked what the United Nations Secretary-General and Mr. Orr planned to do in the lead up to Copenhagen.

Mr. Orr responded by saying that there seemed to be scepticism and “summit fatigue”, and that the United Nations Secretary-General had consulted with the Danish Prime Minister and other delegations on how to keep leaders engaged between now and Copenhagen.  On a query about trust, he said that, in negotiations such as these, anything that builds trust is good and necessary.  “Everybody has to build trust,” he said.  “That is an imperative at this state of the negotiations.”  Regarding adaptation, he said it was important that the issue did not become “an orphan” and he praised Sweden and the European Union for trying to bring it back to the centre of the table during the September Summit on Climate Change in New York.

“It’s not just about dollars and euros and yen but concrete discussions of how to move forward,” he said.  With respect to development and climate change, he said that the United Nations Secretary-General was considering convening a panel that focused on that question. 

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.