Is international action possible

In the two decades since the end of the Cold War, disequilibrium in global political and economic relations has become the new norm. The 'sole remaining superpower', the US, has chosen to address the imbalance through unilateral action (e.g. Iraq) and potential new - and unforeseen - alliances (e.g. the US-India nuclear deal). New bilateral trade agreements have multiplied. Russia, the European Union and China are also experimenting with a variety of new arrangements that are weakening the structures of global cooperation; but a new equilibrium is not yet in place. As a result, the risks to human security that depends upon political and economic stability are increasing.

Environmental threats have grown in urgency - the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the fourth IPCC report offer reams of peer-reviewed scientific studies that raise a host of cautionary flags on everything from species loss to climate change. In February 2007, Sigma XI - the Scientific Research Society -and the United Nations Foundation (UNF) released a summary report, drawing on MEA and IPCC research. This report, Confronting Climate Change: Avoiding the Unmanageable and Managing the Unavoidable, prepared for the 15th session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), provides a comprehensive overview of the impacts forecast and the potential for addressing these challenges. The growing scientific consensus is: start addressing climate change now as other environmental policies -conservation, habitat restoration, chemical and pollution management - are reinforced. A careful reading of the data underscores that actions in other environmental areas will eventually be undermined without a concerted global effort to stabilize and reduce fossil-fuel sourced greenhouse gas emissions. The UNF/Sigma XI report urges a variety of immediate actions to mitigate future climate change, as well as a variety of adaptation strategies to cope with the climate change that is already programmed into the system as a consequence of carbon loading of the atmosphere. Ambitious efforts to reduce global emissions are imperative, and prospects for success are uncertain.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol offer a platform for reinforced global action that has been stymied, in large part, due to US opposition to the mandatory reductions in emissions required of Annex I parties to the Kyoto agreement. Yet, despite the Bush administration's opposition, individual US states, notably California and a regional alliance of north-eastern states in the US, have put in place emission cap-and-trading among eligible companies. These 'cap-and-trade' regimes parallel the design of the European Emissions Trading System. With the electoral shift in congressional power in 2006, the US started to move more rapidly at the federal level, expanding the scope for broader global action with the new administration. In a relatively short time frame, the Obama administration has strengthened auto efficiency standards and is working with the Congress and Senate to develop a federal cap-and-trade system. While positive, public support for sustained action on climate change must be strengthened and maintained as the world must sharply curb its use of coal, oil and gas between now and 2030 to have an impact upon future climate - no simple task. In the months to come we expect more aggressive action from the Obama administration.

The US - even with a strong domestic consensus for action - is not in the position it was in 1957 when President Eisenhower launched a major initiative within the United Nations to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, even though the threat is comparable. With India, China and Brazil growing at unparalleled rates, economic dynamism has expanded far beyond the industrial West. China and India combined already consume more power than the European Union and their domestic demand will only continue to grow - and both countries are currently heavily committed to using domestic coal. Developing countries contend, with some justification, that developed countries caused the problem and the wealthier states must take action. Had the international community accepted this proposition and initiated action in 1992 when voluntary commitments were adopted to return greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2000, we would be in a better position to pursue step-by-step incremental action.

Today, with global emissions more than 25 per cent above 1990, action by every major emitter is essential. US participation - in concert with strong actions already under way in the European Union - would add needed momentum to international effort; but such a move must be met by action in China, India, Brazil and other large emerging economies that would reinforce the new alignment. To encourage developing countries to act, the international community will need to find ways of deploying the most efficient technology as quickly as possible in the developing world. Given the widespread use of coal, new global standards are needed for coal-fired plants and the cleanest power systems used; but new incentives are required globally to ensure that coal for power generation is no longer a 'first, best' option in many countries. To achieve such an objective requires more innovation and deployment of renewable energy - and urgent research on carbon capture and storage for coal plants that may ultimately be built.

All of these actions demand a new commitment to international cooperation and a reinforcement of the institutions - the United Nations, the World Bank Group, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and the regional development banks - that support and finance many initiatives. Most importantly, the private sector with its resources, innovation and ingenuity must be engaged globally and markets must be structured to send signals that drive change. The greatest risk is that we will fail to act quickly enough to 'avoid the unmanageable impacts' of climate change.

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