One of the most important items to be addressed in climate change talks that open in Buenos Aires this week is how Brazil, China and India can be persuaded to participate actively in international efforts to tackle global warming.
Ten years after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change came into force in March 1994, there are many grounds for satisfaction in the way that international negotiations on global climate change have proceeded. Each provides its own answer to pessimists who predicted that such negotiations would collapse following the announcement by the United States in 2002 that it would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which commits signatories among industrialised states to reduce their carbon emissions to below 1990 levels by the year 2012.
The most significant event, perhaps, has been Russia's recent decision to take such a step. The political costs of doing so were not high; after all, the contraction of heavy industry in all parts of the former Soviet Union after the fall in communism has done most of the difficult work in reducing emissions. But Russia's ratification (motivated primarily by its desire to sell 'carbon credits' to other signatories) means that a sufficient number of countries have agreed to their Kyoto targets to allow the protocol to come into force. It will now do so on 16 February 2005.
Other significant developments are also about to take place. The carbon trading mechanism will start operation in 2005, having been introduced by the member states of the European Union. Carbon trading embodies one of the key ideas to have generated consensus in the climate negotiations over the past ten years. This followed from the realisation that global climate change will only be successfully slowed if market-based levers — backed by the necessary political will — can be developed to help achieve this goal.
Another element around which there is growing consensus is that efforts to limit carbon emissions must be compatible with social well-being and economic growth — particularly in developing countries. In practice, this means that, ultimately, the solution to global warming must incorporate new technologies, which in turn means a massive investment in long-term research and development programmes, particularly in the efficient use of renewable energy. And there are signs that this message, too, is being taken on board by developed and developing countries alike.
Goals for Buenos Aires
All this is ground for optimism that progress can be, and is being, made. Nevertheless, the delegates who are meeting in the Argentinean capital Buenos Aires this week for the 10th Conference of Parties to the Convention — known as COP10 — are well aware that the battle against man-made global climate change has only just begun, and that long-term success remains far from assured.
Three goals are now essential if the next steps are to be achieved successfully. The first, already high on the agenda in Buenos Aires, is that the delegates must agree on a comprehensive 'road map' for what happens after the commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol ends. The protocol only covers the period 2008 - 2012, and even successfully reaching the Kyoto emissions targets will leave a long way to go if the increasing disruption already being caused by global warming is to be reversed, not just halted.
A second important goal is to find ways of linking the United States into global negotiations. This may not be as difficult as it sometimes appears. Despite the visceral antipathy to international commitments that lies largely behind much of the current US opposition to Kyoto, many parts of US industry (particularly those with substantial overseas activities) are increasingly realising that it is in their long-term interests to go along with the rest of the world. While others, such as legislators in the state of California, are accepting the logic for actions (such as requiring a major reduction in carbon emissions by automobiles) to which the White House seems determined to turn a blind eye.
It may be tempting for the rest of the world to turn its back on US negotiators, as a firm (and understandable) response to their stubborn unilateralism. But such a move would be short-sighted. As the world's single largest carbon emitter, the United States must be kept engaged in future negotiations, in the hope that environmental and scientific logic will ultimately prevail in Washington DC.
The third goal is perhaps the most challenging one. This is the need to find a way of bringing a relatively small group of larger developing countries — attention is currently focused on Brazil, China and India — into the negotiations on restricting carbon emissions. For, given the rate at which industrial production is currently growing in these countries, it is clear that any significant long-term cuts in emissions will only be achieved with their help.
These countries have a powerful case when they argue that, since they are not the main causes of the problem, they should not be penalised for it. And their case is only strengthened by the uncooperative attitude of the United States (which, in turn, argues that its refusal to go along with the Kyoto Protocol is based partly on the lack of any commitments on emission reductions being placed on developing countries).
But as such countries develop economically, and come to play an increasingly influential political role on the world stage as a result, their claims to a lack of responsibility inevitably grow weaker. Each in turn, for example, is beginning to accept that, even though their contribution to current carbon emissions remains relatively small, it is growing rapidly – and may already be doing so in ways that threaten their own social and economic development.
The challenge, of course, is to find a formula that will bring these countries into the emission reduction process, while respecting both their rights to economic development, and the amount of catching-up they still have to do with other parts of the world. One suggestion, for example, is that, rather than being required to adopt quantitative targets for reducing carbon emissions, they should be asked to agree to reduce the carbon-intensity of their economies — a measure of the amount of carbon used in producing a set amount of economic output — at a rate matching their economic growth.
Other strategies have also been proposed (including the more idealistic suggestion that all countries be asked to sign up to a commitment to 'converge' on an optimal figure of carbon emissions per capita). It is too early to say which is likely to be the most effective, practical and politically acceptable. But it is not too early to insist that each receive close attention as focus shifts to the 'post-Kyoto' period.
The wake-up calls are certainly growing more strident. A significant paper in Nature last week, based on analysis by scientists at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in the United Kingdom, concluded that global climate change is likely to have played a significant role in triggering the heat wave that Europe experienced in 2003, in which in France alone 14,000 people more than expected died (see Humans raise odds of extreme weather).
The scientists emphasise that continuing uncertainties in understanding climate change mean that that they cannot rule out that the heat wave could have occurred naturally. But they do confidently conclude that global climate change appears to have doubled the chances of such an event, while others have made similar claims about, for example, the floods that covered much of Bangladesh earlier this year (see Bangladesh floods: rich nations 'must share the blame').
At the same time, the strength of the claims by scientific sceptics that the case for man-made global climate change has not yet been proven is growing steadily weaker. An article in Science last week describes an analysis of 928 scientific papers on climate change research published in the refereed literature between 1993 and 2003. It reported that three-quarters either explicitly or implicitly accepted the consensus view that human activities are responsible for global warming. The rest made no comment, and none disagreed (see Scientists agree humans cause climate change).
The scientific case for action could, therefore, hardly be much clearer. Equally obvious is that major carbon emitters of the future — such as Brazil, China and India — must now be brought into efforts to stop the situation getting out of control. Finally, it is also obvious that novel political mechanisms are now needed to achieve this in a way that acknowledges both their lack of responsibility for the initial origins of the problem, and the legitimate rights and aspirations of their populations.