With the climate summit in Paris and the adoption of the Sustainable Development goals by the United Nations, 2015 is a decisive year for the future of our planet. Klaus Töpfer evaluates what needs to happen to make this a year for humanity to take action on climate change.
It was one of the most important messages to emerge from the 2014 climate negotiations in Lima: beyond the discussions of goals and time frames, we mustn’t forget to take action. When climate negotiations take place once again at the end of this year in Paris, they should serve above all to give an emphatic boost to processes towards sustainable development and globally effective climate protection. In the fight against climate change, verifiable paths need to be identified and embarked upon in a concerted way. The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) are a first step in this direction.
But even apart from the upcoming summit, the year 2015 is set to be very decisive for the future development of humanity. This is the target year for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the United Nations at the beginning of this millennium. The results are far from discouraging, even if important goals were either not achieved or only partially realised. Thus the target of halving hunger across the globe was not achieved in important regions of the world, above all in Africa. The same is true of secure access to drinking water. Population growth, rapid urbanisation and the climate change being experienced so acutely by developing countries are compounding these problems.
With the expiry of the MDGs, the onus is on the world community to set new targets. In the course of preparations for the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, it once again became clear: development can only be successful in the long term if it is sustainable, i.e. if it is neither at the expense of social responsibility nor to the disadvantage of the environment in its contribution to economic development on the one hand and in its responsibility for creation on the other. As the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan put it: “Prosperity built on destruction is not prosperity at all, but rather only a temporary reprieve from tragedy. There will be little peace, and much greater poverty, if this assault continues.”
But it is in fact the most developed countries that are far from sustainable in their business practices and consumption, in their lifestyles and the demands they make on the gifts of nature and the environment – and far from the goal of preserving creation. In his encyclical “Laudato Sì”, Pope Francis made no bones about this flawed development in industrial countries and presented these countries with a clear mandate to mend their ways.
The Rio+20 Conference mooted the idea of elaborating sustainable development goals that would apply to all countries, regardless of their level of economic development. Thanks to committed preparatory work, 17 goals (the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs) and over 160 targets for their realisation have been formulated. They will be debated and agreed upon by the UN General Assembly this coming September. In this way, an idea that had until quite recently been dismissed as a pipe dream will become a concrete utopia for a world where nine billion people are to live in harmony in 2050.
And you don’t have to be naively optimistic to expect that the General Assembly will seize this opportunity.
However, to achieve the SDGs, which address climate change and access to reliable and sustainable energy among other things, countries need to work together to develop a system of actionable indicators. The goals must be comparable and verifiable, but this should not be a sticking point for the negotiations. The same is true of the negotiations on climate protection, which, in addition to acknowledging the differing capacities of different states, should first and foremost stress and foster the opportunities that can arise from climate protection and adaptation. The negotiations in Paris will emphasise this.
It is now clear that it is possible to separate economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions. Even if we have to assume that energy-related emissions will continue to rise in some parts of the world, much has been achieved, thanks in the main to measures that are having positive effects on the economy, health and the climate.
The implementation of the 17 SDGs will only be successful if we take account of central interdependencies. They need to build on foundations that are also due to be laid in two further areas this year: progress was recently made on the issue of the “means of implementation” at the third international “Financing for Development” conference in Addis Ababa. In December, the international community will provide the framework for a climate policy characterised by action at the climate conference in Paris. Both are vital foundations of a comprehensive sustainability strategy. If the SDGs are to be more than lip service paid for ‘business as usual’, the interdependencies between these processes must also be considered in implementation. Put plainly, that means that we cannot focus merely on the availability of finances when it comes to the means of implementation. As underlined at the G7 Summit in June of this year, technological development and mutual support are also necessary to exploit the real opportunities to decarbonise the global economy. As well as contributing to economic development and the fight against poverty, the expansion of renewable energies can drive forward climate protection efforts.
Technological progress in the generation of electricity from energy sources that are considerably more environmentally friendly and lower in carbon such as wind and solar shows that there is a sound business case for decarbonising the economy. Within the next two years, the system costs for solar energy – i.e. generation and the infrastructural consequences for transmission lines and storage – could match the price level of coal-fired power. This means that electricity generated from renewables is most competitive in regions that have significantly more sunshine or more intense winds than Germany. The falling prices for solar and wind energy make the global expansion of efficient and environmentally friendly energy systems possible – an essential prerequisite for realising the right of all countries to development, as agreed at the 1992 Rio conference, by providing “sustainable energy for all”. If poorer countries, especially in Africa, can cover the energy needs that are critical for their development by expanding their low-carbon electricity generation, then international (climate) policy will have succeeded in the long term.
Beyond legally binding targets and time frames, the Lima Climate Conference paved the way for the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). It is now crucial that we initiate a process of action against climate change rather than resigning in the face of unattainable goals. It is essential that this process is binding and verifiable in the future. Only then will it lead to an ever stronger and dynamic climate policy.
Professor Dr. Klaus Töpfer is Executive Director of the IASS and Council Chair at Agora Energiewende. He is also the former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) based in Nairobi and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations (1998-2006). He was Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety from 1987 to 1994 and Federal Minister for Regional Planning, Housing and Urban Development from 1994-1998.
This article was first published in German on 27 July 2015 in Das Parlament and is reposted from the IASS blog with permission.