You and I can make Kyoto-2 work

The 16th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is due to begin in less than four months from now, at Cancun, Mexico. As yet there are very few indications of significant milestones being achieved at that meeting. There are some who believe that the outcome of Cancun might turn out to be somewhat similar to the lack of strong steps forward witnessed last year at the 15th COP in Copenhagen.

For several months now there has been an expectation that the Senate of the United States would pass, in some form, a proposed bill that was introduced largely through the initiative of Senator John Kerry. However, this piece of legislation has not made any progress and for a variety of reasons most observers believe that perhaps legislation will not take place in the US till after the Congressional elections due to take place in November this year. After that what happens would depend largely on the political complexion of Congress as it emerges with a large number of new members.

Meanwhile, there are those officials in the administration who believe that much can be done through action by the executive branch of the government, particularly given the powers that the judiciary has provided to the United States Environment Protection Authority (USEPA). A very clear regulation to improve the energy efficiency of automobiles in the US is already in place. Another area where improvements in energy efficiency are economically viable is in the building sector. In fact, there are significant differences in energy efficiency of same-size buildings and for somewhat similar climates as between some countries of Europe and the US. A programme of incentives and disincentives could bring about an early and substantial improvement in energy efficiency in buildings in the US and, therefore, there could be a significant reduction in the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) clearly specifies that the most effective instrument for bringing about mitigation of GHGs would be placing a price on carbon. A substitute for this would, of course, be a set of incentives, disincentives and regulatory requirements that could achieve similar results in the short term.

There is currently a growing concern on the possibility of a gap developing between the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and the beginning of the second. The first period would be terminated at the end of 2012. However, if there is no agreement on actions to be taken in the second commitment period then clearly there is a possibility of the second period coming into force after a gap of time. It is with this in view that a proposal has now been introduced for discussion and possible action, by which some of the rigid requirements of the original version of the Kyoto Protocol - which is currently in force - would be modified to allow flexibility in countries joining and exiting the Protocol as an agreement emerges for the second commitment period. All this is being proposed essentially to see that an agreement is in place well before the end of 2012 and with adequate provision of time for the second commitment period coming into force without a gap.

While a global agreement has enormous significance for protecting the global commons, such as the earth's atmosphere which today is characterised by a rapid increase in the concentration of GHGs, action at the local level across the globe is now becoming increasingly imperative. The likelihood is that through widespread awareness on the likely impacts of climate change in different parts of the globe and the means by which mitigation of GHGs can take place, substantial action can be triggered at the local level across the globe. These actions will also create adequate confidence and a substantive basis to facilitate an agreement being reached at the global level.

One reason for expecting initiatives by communities and societies irrespective of any global agreement lies in the enormous co-benefits that would accrue from reduced GHG emissions. This is likely to happen because those actions which reduce these emissions, such as higher levels of energy efficiency in various sectors of the economy and a major increase in exploitation of renewable resources of energy, would also carry several attendant benefits. These would be in the nature of lower levels of air pollution at the local level which would create a range of health benefits, higher levels of energy security globally, higher employment, such as through projects based on renewable sources of energy and higher agricultural productivity which would ensure higher food security.

There is now growing evidence based on long-term observations which indicates that there is an increase in the intensity and frequency of floods, droughts, heat waves and extreme precipitation events. Public concern on this is also growing. It is not merely based on dissemination of the results of the AR4 but also as a consequence of observations by communities themselves on trends in changes of the climate systems which they are witnessing. The media, of course, has an important responsibility in spreading the results of scientific assessments, both in respect of the impacts of climate change and related adaptation measures as well as on opportunities and benefits associated with mitigation. It would, therefore, be reasonable to assume that understanding the human and economic costs of inaction and the net benefits from action would certainly create responses at the grassroots level that in the aggregate would provide the basis for a global agreement.

Meanwhile, it is important that the negotiators who are engaged in coming up with a future agreement, particularly in respect of the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, devise practical and flexible approaches by which the second period is not delayed and does actually come into force by January 1, 2013. The world now has adequate experience in devising appropriate agreements that ensure a fair and effective response to the challenge of climate change across the globe and across all societies - an agreement that would hold and can be brought into force by a sizeable majority of nations.