Nicholas Stern welcomes outcome of climate change summit in Durban, South Africa

Posted on 11 Dec 2011 in

Responding to the outcome of the United Nations climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, Lord Stern of Brentford, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said:

“The outcome of the summit is a modest but significant step forward. The South Africans created a warm and constructive atmosphere for the negotiations in Durban. As the difficulties of the last two days showed, the outcome could have been much worse, but the eventual agreement was founded on an understanding of the gravity of the risks posed by climate change, an awareness of the dangers of delay as concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rise and high-carbon infrastructure is locked in, and a growing appreciation of the opportunities and attractions offered by low-carbon economic growth.

“The decision to move towards a unified system, with all countries having some form of legal commitments, removes an important obstacle and could allow, for example, the United States to play a more participative and constructive role in the future. The obligations within that unified system will have to be worked out, but must surely take account of the poverty and low emissions per capita in many countries of the world. What is important is that countries’ commitments are credible and are strong enough overall to avoid dangerous climate change.

“However, the world will not be able to avoid global warming of more than two centigrade degrees, beyond which the impacts of climate change become increasingly dangerous, just by taking a series of modest but significant steps forward over the next few years. While the outcome from Durban recognises the two degree target, the actions that have been agreed do not show an appreciation of exactly how important it is. The Durban outcome explicitly acknowledges that the pledges for emissions reductions made by countries at last year’s summit in Cancùn are not consistent with the two degrees target, although they would, if delivered, move us more than halfway between ‘business as usual’ and the path on which we would need to be in 2020; the Cancùn pledges would mean annual global emissions in 2020 would be roughly at the level they are now, about 50 billion tonnes per year. This emissions gap has been clearly identified through the analyses carried out by the Grantham Research Institute and the United Nations Environment Programme.

“If the actions pledged in Cancùn are not strengthened, annual emissions will probably level off and stay at about 50 billion tonnes per year, which would put the world on the path towards likely global warming of at least three centigrade degrees, to a global temperature not seen on Earth for more than three million years. That would have very serious consequences for the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the world, and would not be consistent with the Cancùn principle of “equitable access to sustainable development”, where the latter concept must surely embody the two degree target. And given the strong economic growth that is expected in developing countries between 2020 and 2030, even holding to 50 billion tonnes per year would require a lot of effort. This means that to follow the Cancùn principle we must turn the ethical searchlight towards strong financial and technological support from the rich countries for the developing world; the challenge is to overcome global poverty while at the same time tightening the climate ambition so that development is indeed sustainable.

“The Durban summit showed that there is growing recognition of the opportunities offered by the new energy and industrial revolution, which must underpin the transition to the low-carbon economy. Many inspirational examples were showcased during the ‘momentum for change’ event in Durban, ranging from a project to develop new solar lightbulbs from reused plastic bottles in the Philippines, to major water and energy conservation programmes in South Africa.

“The decision to pursue a unified legal system of some form for all countries, to be signed by 2015, shows an understanding that top-down international agreements and bottom-up domestic actions can and must reinforce each other. The top-down process can give a sense of direction for actions by countries and businesses, and those actions can make country negotiators more confident about the feasibility and attraction of low-carbon growth. Countries will not be able to deliver the strong and urgent action that is needed to manage the risks of climate change through a top-down or bottom-up approach alone. The European Union deserves credit for having pushed for the creation of a process towards a more unified legal system, demonstrating clearly that its Member states are most effective in international discussions when they speak with one voice.

“The decision by the European Union and other countries to commit to further emissions reductions through the Kyoto Protocol for a second period is very welcome. Important progress was also made in widening the scope of the Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, or CDM, to include carbon capture and storage and to improve access to poorer countries; in the past the CDM has involved mainly China and India.

“There was also a modest technical advance on tackling deforestation and land degradation. Such work must surely accelerate as increasing energy efficiency and stopping deforestation are the two most rapid ways of reducing emissions.

“The agreement on the legal structure of the Green Climate Fund is welcome. The challenge over the next year will be to agree how to fund it. The High-Level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing, on which I served after it was set up by the United Nations Secretary-General, published its report in November 2010. It laid out a number of potential ways of raising the US$100 billion a year that the rich countries committed in Cancùn to provide to developing countries by 2020 to support the transition to low-carbon economic growth and to adapt to those impacts of climate change that cannot now be avoided. The Advisory Group put forward a package of mutually supportive funding sources that could be scaled up as necessary, as needs are identified and climate objectives are tightened. The innovative nature of the sources is intended to provide confidence that they will be over and above existing aid commitments. The package is mainly based on carbon pricing and taxes, and thus provides the right kind of incentives as well as raising revenue. The scale of the incentives is consistent with the commitments in the Cancùn Agreements. The Grantham Research Institute published a paper, which I co-authored with Mattia Romani, during the Durban summit, describing how the US$100 billion can and should be raised.”

Notes for Editors

  1. The Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy was established in 2008 to advance public and private action on climate change through rigorous, innovative research. The Centre is hosted jointly by the University of Leeds and the London School of Economics and Political Science. It is funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Counciland Munich Re.
  2. The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment was launched at the London School of Economics and Political Science in October 2008. It is funded by The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, which also supports the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London.