The failure so far of a decades-long process to confront man-made climate change on a global level through a meaningful, effective and fair commitment to reduce green house gas (GHG) emissions poses a serious dilemma for the survival of human civilization on this planet.
The latest round of talks intended to put the Earth on a sustainable climate-change path have been taking place this week in Doha, Qatar, at the United Nations-driven Conference of Parties (COP 18). The message coming out of the Conference is a stark reminder of the dangers facing humanity and our fellow travelers on this planet.
To maintain average global temperatures less than 2 degrees centigrade (2°C) above pre-industrial levels, the planetary carbon budget stands between 550 and 580 giga-tons of CO2-equivalent (CO2e) emissions. Currently, humans are emitting 45-55 giga-tons of CO2e every year and, at this pace we can outspend planetary carbon budget in another 10 to 15 years.
In the wake of the now famous "Copenhagen failure" to design a post-Kyoto climate policy, which would have ideally taken effect for the 2012-2020 period, the UN negotiation process is aiming to agree upon an international treaty by 2015 that will take effect from 2020 onwards. Given the increasing economic growth rates in developing countries, GHG emissions are expected to increase to as much as 55-65 Giga-tons of CO2e per year by 2020. It is becoming less and less likely that we can meet a 2°C goal.
In fact, the World Bank recently issued a shocking report saying that a 4°C world is looking more and more likely in the absence of an international agreement to reign in GHGs. The 4°C world could arrive as early as 2080!
According to the World Bank report, a 4°C world would play havoc with our planetary ecological system, resulting in widespread food insecurity, mass hunger, mass migration, biodiversity loss, coastal erosion, more frequent droughts, floods, heat waves and super-storms.
The threats likely to emerge in a 4°C world lead to a surprising question: should high-GHG emitters be seen as something akin to "climate criminals"? Industrialized countries, especially the United States, European Union, Canada, Japan, Russia and Australia, and now rapidly industrializing countries, with the acronym of BRICS (Brazil, India, China and South Africa), are increasingly responsible for the growth of annual GHGs to the current levels of 45-55 Giga-tons. Are they culpable for their actions?
In the last 20 years since the 1992 Rio treaty, the UN process has failed to regulate GHGs. Both the industrialized countries and rapidly industrializing countries are not willing to agree upon costlier, binding GHG reductions, which would require extensive regulation of markets in energy, agriculture, waste, transportation and forestry across the developed and developing countries.
We stand at a critical juncture in human history. Either, we start getting ready for a 4°C world, and perhaps a 8°C world by 2160, or we rise above the short-term economic cost concerns and change the current economic growth paradigm. This would require replacing energy and transportation systems based on fossil fuels with renewable sources of power, a momentous task in the short time left to try and maintain a 2°C world.
Respecting tropical forests, dematerializing consumption, removing waste streams and, above all, shifting to local, organic food systems will also be needed to solve the climate crisis. These transformative shifts in our economic paradigm could be enabled through legal triggers at all levels of governance, from international treaties in these sectors to national and sub-national incentive designs.
In previous posts to this blog, we have argued that laws enable new possibilities, which in turn guide the trajectories of biological and economic evolution on this planet. The urgency of taking action on climate change couldn't be higher. While the UN Conferences of Parties in the last 20 years have failed to deliver, enabling laws and incentives at all governance levels could trigger an economic transformation that would ensure climate security in the medium-to-long run.
Asim Zia, blogging from the UN COP 18 in Doha, Qatar, is the author of the forthcoming book Post-Kyoto Climate Governance: Confronting the Politics of Scale, Ideology and Knowledge, to be published by Rutledge Press in February 2013. He is assistant professor in the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics and Department of Computer Science at the University of Vermont and a Fellow at the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics.