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As the latest round of United Nations climate change negotiations in Bonn, Germany, draws to a close after another series of familiar delays, it is important to recall the tremendous scale of the challenge we face and the precious little time remaining to meet it.
There are not many uncontroversial topics at these talks – and the difficulty with trying to satisfy all of the diverse interests involved goes a long way toward explaining why this process is taking so long.
But few people here would disagree with the following statement: We are not acting boldly enough or quickly enough to avert an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.
Scientific research clearly shows that unless the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for the crisis are substantially reduced in the near term, well before 2020, the opportunity to avoid catastrophic global warming in excess of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or even 2 degrees Celsius, could be irrevocably lost.
This harsh reality underpinned the hard-won outcome of COP 17 in Durban, re-affirmed last year in Doha, in which parties agreed to intensify efforts to raise their mitigation ambition in the next few years under discussions known as “Workstream 2 of the ADP.”
It also motivated a recent proposal by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) - a group of 44 low-lying and coastal countries that are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts, particularly rising seas - to complement the negotiations with a line of discussions focused squarely on implementing policies and technologies proven to rapidly lower emissions.
The thrust of the idea is to engage those experts and authorities who are actually responsible for implementing climate solutions – leading scientists, engineers, policy analysts, representatives from the private sector, and officials from relevant government ministries, such as finance and energy – in a collaborative process capable of delivering measurable results within the required timeframe.
It is equally important to bring to the process civil society, which brings much-needed accountability, as well as a wealth of expertise – from the leading think tanks, to international non-governmental organisations, to representatives of community-based groups operating in rural communities around the world. They need to be funded to attend the meetings if necessary.
HOW TO AVOID THE PITFALLS
Only by ensuring the meaningful participation and buy-in of all stakeholders will this process have the legitimacy needed to avoid the pitfalls that have derailed so many efforts in the past.
Science shows that in order to lower emissions to the level required both developed and developing countries will need to explore opportunities to take action. But developed countries must take the lead, first and foremost, by examining their untapped domestic mitigation potential and designing strategies to enact new policies. These should translate into more ambitious Kyoto Protocol commitments (and other comparably ambitious mitigation targets under the Convention) through the treaty’s 2014 ratchet mechanism.
The reality is that raising ambition in the short term comes with political challenges, in part because of the need to ensure cooperation between developed and developing countries.
But the more technical approach put forward by AOSIS would help bridge this divide by providing assurances to developing countries that developed countries commitments to provide the finance, capacity building, and the other means of implementation they need to achieve their mitigation goals are met.
For developed countries, it would give confidence that the support will result in measurable emissions reductions. It would also create an opportunity for them to share and expand on important successes they have achieved outside the U.N. process and find ways to bring them rapidly to scale.
Only by enabling all parties to enact more ambitious mitigation efforts domestically will they be in a position to take on ambitious commitments under Workstream 1, the line of negotiations charged with developing a new climate agreement to be signed in 2015 and take effect by 2020.
The discussions would initially look at renewable energy and energy efficiency and, if this technical mode of working proves effective, expand to include other areas where substantial reductions can be made.
Existing work under U.N. institutions or subsidiary bodies should not be duplicated, but rather coordinated as an integral part of a truly collaborative international effort to drive the implementation of promising policies and technologies.
Discussions must remain focused on examining the scale of reductions achievable, costs, and other barriers to implementation, as well as strategies to overcome them.
To stay on track, our proposal calls for the following calendar of events:
- In the run up to COP19 in Warsaw this year, negotiators and observers should compile a list of energy efficiency and renewable energy policies and technologies proven to reduce emissions. The compilation should feed into a “technical paper,” written by the UNFCCC Secretariat, which would form the basis of more detailed discussions to come;
- The Warsaw conference should host a high-level meeting of environment ministers in order to assess the work and identify priority areas to be advanced in 2014;
- The conference should establish expert working groups, which would be tasked with developing detailed and scalable solutions in the priority areas;
- The following year, at COP 20, the groups should deliver on their mandate, setting the stage for implementation.
Furthermore, the United Nations Secretary General’s Leaders Summit in 2014 provides a key moment for heads of state and government to mobilise the political will required to get the job done.
Solving the biggest crisis civilisation has ever faced will require bringing the best minds and best practices together using a focused, results-oriented process with common urgency. If we believe our rhetoric, committing to such an effort and the resources it requires is the least we can do to bring our actions in line with our words.
Ambassador Marlene Moses is the permanent representative to the United Nations for the Republic of Nauru and currently chairs the Alliance of Small Island States.