When the United Nations was formally established in 1945—the name had already been in use by the Allies during the Second World War—someone said that its purpose was not to take humanity to heaven but to save it from hell. When the 21st “Conference of the Parties” to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets in Paris on 30th November this year, it will be yet another chapter in the UN’s pursuit of that aim.
Just as there are sceptics about climate change itself, however, there are sceptics about the point of spending large sums on conferences about climate change. Remember how much the Copenhagen conference in December 2009 promised, and how little it delivered? Why not—so ask these sceptics—give the millions of dollars such conferences cost to the scientists working to solve the problem, rather than generating more hot air to add to global warming?
I was in Kyoto in 1997 when the eponymous Protocol on the reduction of greenhouse gases was signed there. My presence was coincidental; I was not at the conference itself, but visiting the Ginkakuji and walking the Tetsugaku no Michi. But all day that US Vice-President Al Gore was present, the air was full of helicopters and the streets were full of police cars blaring their sirens, a manifest irony in the effort to fight the pollution poisoning our world and its future.
Yet the irony was a double irony: for without that miniature hell of various sorts of pollution prompted by the desire to save the planet, we would be in a far worse state. The plain truth is that saving the planet has to be done on a fully international basis, as a concerted effort by all the major polluting parties. It has to be willed by governments and international organisations, because it cannot be done by individuals or by just some in the global community.
Recycling one’s rubbish is a gesture of commitment, but the fitful efforts of individuals do not even nibble at the threat. Given the sheer scale of the threat, what alternative is there to trying for joint action? UN-level endeavour, however ineffective it currently appears to the sceptics, is the only practicable resource.
There is however something that people can do at the national level: which is to encourage, oblige or force their governments to commit to realistic targets and to stick to them—at the UN level. For the problem is the reluctance of governments to disadvantage their own economies by regulating to scale back consumption, or to add costs to manufacturing, transport and energy by effective emissions controls. At the time of Kyoto the argument was that rich countries were obliging developing countries to scale back or regulate expensively, and naturally the developing countries objected; yet these developing countries—China and India were principally in the frame—were (and remain) major polluters.
Since Kyoto almost all the major polluters have become better able to afford to take the kind of action that would limit global warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels. This argument, accordingly, should no longer persuade.
But are the sceptics right to be so dismissive of UN-level efforts? Recall that the UNFCCC’s aims were to help signatory parties to adapt to climate change, to discuss how mitigation of climate-damaging effects could be funded, to develop technologies to help with mitigation and clean-up, and finally to get greenhouse gas emissions down. Kyoto got 37 major industrial nations to agree to targets; it set a target of 5 per cent reduction in emissions below 1990 levels by 2012, and that target has been achieved. Some countries did very well: the UK agreed to a 12.5 per cent reduction, yet a year before the target date had reduced emissions by 27 per cent. Since then a number of countries have resigned from the process; the process itself stumbles, and not nearly enough has been achieved.
Like a dance with disaster, there seem to be nearly as many steps backwards as forwards. Some countries—alas, among them Canada and Australia—are among the delinquents not pulling their weight. The former withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, the latter set itself what were described by Larissa Waters, the Australian Green party senator, as “pathetically weak” targets of 26-28 per cent reductions to 2005 levels by 2030.
The case of Canada is instructive. At Kyoto it agreed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by a modest 6 per cent by 2012; by 2008 it had increased them by 24 per cent. And so it withdrew. If that is how some of the big players are going to behave, the planet is doomed: literally.