THE Rio+20 summit on sustainable development held last June did not attract major headlines in the mainstream media despite its existential implications.
In any case, the summit’s painfully negotiated and artfully ambiguous decisions are unlikely to provide solutions to the challenge of achieving global prosperity.
Scientific evidence of the grave impact of the current industrial model and lifestyles on the world’s climate and ecological systems is now incontrovertible. To avoid climate catastrophe, the rise in the world’s average temperatures must be limited to below two degrees Celsius. This implies reducing current levels of carbon emissions by 90 per cent by 2050.
Such sharp reductions can be achieved in most developed countries through energy efficiency and progressive reliance on low-carbon and no-carbon technologies. They need to grow by only one to two per cent annually to maintain, even improve living standards.
The real challenge arises in the developing countries. They need to grow by at least eight to nine per cent annually for the next 20-30 years to eliminate poverty. This is their first priority. But economic growth is closely related to per capita energy use. The poor countries have access to one-tenth of the energy supply they need to achieve an annual growth of eight to nine per cent.
If this expansion in energy supply is realised by utilising the current high-carbon energy systems — which are still the cheapest — global carbon emissions would rise dramatically. The world’s mean temperature rise could not be kept below the 2C ceiling.
If a global catastrophe is to be avoided, it is essential to rapidly transform the global systems of power generation, vehicle transport, building design and industrial processes, especially in the steel, oil, petrochemical and cement sectors, in both the developed and developing countries. Such transformation could provide a sustainable economic model for all countries.
Such transformation will naturally have to be achieved at the national level, within the context of each country’s own circumstances, capacities and compulsions. But the transformation needs to be globally coordinated and obligations and rights distributed equitably. The commitments of the industrialised and richer countries will need to be larger, quicker and more binding than those of the poorer countries.
It is obvious, however, that the poorer developing countries will need technological and financial support to implement such a major transformation.
In the technological sphere, considerable progress has been made already. But much more work is needed to: identify the best available technologies for reducing emissions; evolve strategies to make these economic and competitive; facilitate technology transfers to developing countries at affordable prices; and invest in the diffusion of existing and development of new technologies.
The transformation of energy systems, and the application of the appropriate technologies, will require major financial outlays of around $200 billion at least annually.
So-called market-based approaches are unlikely to offer an adequate answer. A global programme of public investment, funded partly from a fund with financial contributions linked to national carbon emissions, is the best option.
Each country could generate the allocated amount for the fund in ways it deems appropriate: through a carbon tax, a tax on greenhouse gas emissions and/or auctioning of carbon permits. Such a fund could be used for R&D, technology transfer, adaptation, and investment in a programme of renewable energy in the developing countries.
Unfortunately, the major powers do not appear to possess the political will to respond to the requirements of either development or climate change. The decisions at Rio+20 prescribed more process — high-level groups and committees — but were short on substance.
Most significantly, at Rio and after, the major industrial countries have not accepted making deep cuts in carbon emissions; nor providing technological or financial help to the poorer countries. They seem to have resiled from the central principle of climate action based on common but differentiated responsibility and capacity. And, almost every major commitment to support growth and development in the developing countries has been observed in the breach.
Meanwhile, much larger amounts are being deployed for financial bailouts of bankrupt banks and industrial countries.
In the aftermath of the recent financial crisis, the immediate has become the enemy of the imperative. Even if the ongoing bailouts of banks and broke industrial countries win the battle to restore temporary equilibrium in the world economy, it would be for naught if the war against growing poverty and climate change is lost.
Losing this war may be mankind’s most epic defeat. It is likely to provoke the progressive collapse of the world’s economic and political structures and the sustainability of life on our planet. The world’s leaders must wake up and respond to this clear, common and present danger.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.