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BRIEFING  - January 12, 2011

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Climate change: ‘There is much to be done’

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, held last month in Cancún, Mexico, ended with the adoption of a balanced package of decisions that set all governments more firmly on the path toward a low-carbon emissions future and support of enhanced action on climate change in the developing world. It also solidified the role of the UN as the center of international policy and cooperation in the area of climate change—a role that was jeopardized at the 2009 Copenhagen conference, when several industrialized countries, including the United States, assumed sole decision-making authority.

The theme of sustainable development has been part of the UN agenda since 1972, when the UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, Sweden, brought the industrialized and developing nations together to delineate the “rights” of the human family to a healthy and productive environment. A series of meetings followed, addressing topics such as the rights of people to adequate food, to sound housing, to safe water. This effort to pay greater attention to humanity’s connection with Nature led to the creation of global institutions within the UN system. Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, was published in 1987, and placed environmental issues firmly on the political agenda. It aimed to discuss the environment and development as one single issue. In addition, the report recognized that the many crises facing the planet are interlocking crises that are elements of a single crisis of the whole.

In 1989, the General Assembly called for a global meeting to devise integrated strategies that would halt and reverse the negative impact of human behavior on the physical environment and promote environmentally sustainable development in all countries. This was accomplished at the UN Conference on Environment and Development, known as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June, 1992. This resulted in the Rio Declaration and its Agenda 21 Programme of Action for sustainable development worldwide. Underlying the Earth Summit agreements is the realization that humanity has reached a turning point, and that we can better manage and protect the ecosystem and bring about a more prosperous future for all through a global partnership for sustainable development. Central to this partnership would be the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, which met for the first time in June, 1993 – the first anniversary of the Earth Summit. The Rio Earth Summit also produced three UN conventions: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), whose goal is to prevent “dangerous” human interference with the climate system; the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Convention to Combat Desertification.

To date, 194 countries participate in the UNFCCC, which considers how best to reduce global warming, and deal with whatever temperature increases are inevitable. The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement linked to the UNFCCC, was adopted in 1997. The Protocol sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community (Annex I Parties) for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent from 1991 levels, with the first commitment period set to expire in 2012. The major distinction between the Kyoto Protocol and the Convention on Climate Change is that while the Convention encouraged industrialized countries to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, the Protocol commits them to do so. Recognizing that developed countries are principally responsible for the high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, the Protocol places a heavier burden on developed nations under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” However, neither China, India nor Brazil are considered Annex I Parties, and they are among the major contributors to greenhouse gas emission today. To date, the Kyoto Protocol has been ratified by 193 parties; the United States is not among them.

The 2009 Climate Conference in Copenhagen was marked by disputes over both transparency and process, as informal negotiations among major economies resulted in a “political agreement” that many felt was inadequate given the enormity of the global problem. The Conference in Cancún, however, was a clear effort to put the discussions regarding climate change back in the UN. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke of climate change as a “cross-cutting issue,” and said that the entire UN system must be directed towards creating a future for sustainable development. He spoke in terms “50-50-50”—in 2050, world population will have increased by 50 percent, to 9 billion; the goal should be to reduce emissions to 50 percent of the 1991 levels. Despite dissent, most notably from the representatives from Bolivia, who felt that the industrialized nations should do more, agreement was reached on placing climate change mitigation commitments of all countries into the formal process of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, where these commitments will be monitored, reported and verified. Regarding climate change financing, the developed nations will raise $30 billion over a three-year period to help poor countries cope with the escalating consequences of climate change. There was also agreement on a longer term “green climate fund” whose goal is to raise $100 billion annually by 2020. Delegates also agreed that there should be no gap in the Kyoto Protocol, whose first commitment period expires in 2012. Negotiations on a second commitment phase will continue. All in all, the Cancún Conference assumed a pragmatic approach, making progress wherever possible.

More on the issue of sustainable development and climate change as we draw closer to the Commission on Sustainable Development in May, and as preparations unfold for the Rio + 20 Conference, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit in June 2012. In conclusion, the following words from Maurice F. Strong, the Secretary General of the UN Conference on Environment and Development in June 1992—the first Earth Summit—seem to be just as important today, as they were 20 years ago:

“The movement to turn the world from its self-consumptive course to one of renewal and sustenance has unmistakably spread… Though in the aftermath of Rio there is a heightened awareness of, and debate over, the compelling need for action, there is not yet a concerted and decisive response to the magnitude and urgency of the task… There is much to be done.”

Margaret Mayce

Margaret Mayce, OP (DLC/Amityville)
NGO in Special Consultative Status at the United Nations
Dominican Leadership Conference
211 East 43 St. Rm 704
New York, NY 10017
email: Margaret Mayce, OP

Dominican Leadership Conference

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