The main aim of the UN climate summit at Durban, which began on November 28 and ends on December 9, is to produce an agreement about targets emissions by developed countries, and longer-term targets for developing countries. But with sudden switches in energy policies, environmental regulations and accidents such as Fukushima, plus increasing financial fragility, national governments are increasingly aware how policy in these areas impacts lives as well as the economy.
Decision-makers also have the difficult task of pursuing long-term objectives about climate change. The key question centres around the best way to do this.
Governments have become more cautious about signing up to new long-term and tightly-defined transnational agreements that might affect their flexibility to respond to changing circumstances. A global deal on climate change may be less effective than regional, national and city-level initiatives as the former is perceived to be insensitive to the technologies and time-scales for emission reduction in varying countries.
Governments with rapidly growing populations and developing technology, such as many of those in Asia and Africa, will also take longer to get a grip on their emissions than those with falling populations and advanced technology such as those in Europe.
So in Durban, would it be wiser to find a more collaborative way to respond to climate change than concentrate on what may be unproductive negotiations for a global agreement?
Durban is more likely to be successful if it focuses on engaging and enabling the diverse array of regional, national and city-level climate change mitigation and adaptation measures already in place — such as the European carbon trading system. The latter, despite its mixed record due to early design flaws, is already proving of significant interest for countries looking to introduce their own carbon trading systems like South Korea and China.
Given the particular challenge for urban areas, cities are also leading the charge to action. Municipal governments are adopting some of the most innovative ways of adapting to worsening climate hazards — such as putting wind turbines on dykes as in Rotterdam. Giving more responsibility to city governments to tackle climate change would help expedite national solutions.
A productive outcome at Durban would also include better enabling of private sector innovation to reduce emissions. Unlike other recent UN meetings like Copenhagen, scientists should be present to explain how the most effective local actions should be related to mitigating local climate change. Negotiations and promises on paper do not reduce emissions — only action on the ground can achieve that.
(Julian Hunt is a former director general of the UK Meteorological Office)
The views expressed by the author are personal