One year ago, at the tail end of a searingly hot day on the Balinese peninsula of Nusa Dua, governments from around the world agreed on a plan to save the climate. They pledged that by December 2009, they’ll have nailed down an agreement to achieve the global emission cuts urgently required to keep climate change in check. In doing so, they acknowledged that it’s now or never; that if they fail to reach that agreement, they will be unable to look the future in the eye.
We are one year down the track. A year is a long time in today’s climate; temperature increases, global emissions and loss of ice at the Arctic and Antarctic have now overshot scientists’ worst case scenarios. The Arctic icecap has entered what’s been called a 'death spiral'. For the first time in human history, you can take a ship right around the North Pole. There may be no summer ice left at all at the North Pole within five years. The British foreign secretary's special representative for climate said the challenge of fighting climate change must be treated more seriously than the threat from the Cold War, and that industrialised countries should essentially put their economies on a war footing. The scientific imperative for action is growing by the day, and we have just one year left to reach a deal that sees global emissions peak in the next eight years, then drop.
The next stop on the road to Copenhagen is in Poznan, Poland next week. Environment and climate ministers will meet for the first time since Bali to chart out a plan of action. A clear work plan must be borne out of Poznan if a deal is to be reached in Copenhagen. As US President Elect Barack Obama said the other day, the work at Poznan is vital for the planet, and the stakes could not be higher.
New Zealand will send a delegation of about 20 representatives to Poznan. They’ll be lead by the newly appointed Minister in charge of climate negotiations - Tim Groser. Unfortunately for Mr Groser, he heads off to these talks with New Zealand’s reputation in tatters. Contrary to government rhetoric in the past, we have never been leaders. Rather, we’re well established as one of the climate bad guys and have always sided with what’s known as an “umbrella group” of countries, comprising the US, Canada, Russia, Australia and Japan (although the US’ position is expected to change). This group consistently stalls and stymies any real progress. It will be up to Mr Groser to make up for New Zealand’s past mistakes and establish some much-needed credibility on the world stage.
A meaningful global agreement rests on two things. 1) Developed countries signing up to strong emission reduction targets. 2) Developing countries committing to contribute in some way to overall emission reductions. If countries like New Zealand don’t agree to do their bit, why should developing countries come onboard?
The current global financial crisis cannot be used as justification for delay. The urgency of one crisis is no excuse for neglecting another, especially when doing so will only make the former one worse. As a columnist in Britain’s Independent newspaper pointed out: “The Wall Street Crash hadn't happened for 80 years. The Arctic Crash hasn't happened for three million years. The Arctic is often described as the canary in the coal mine. As one Arctic researcher put it to me this week: the canary is dead. It's time to clear the mine, and run”.
The UK has just passed the Climate Change Bill, which pledges to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown: “I know that some people may be saying that the difficult financial circumstances that the world now faces mean that climate change should move to the back burner of international concern. I believe the opposite is the case”.
Barack Obama has issued a “you’re either with us or against us” type message about fighting climate change. New Zealand must heed it. The last thing we want is for New Zealand to become an international climate change pariah.
The credit crisis presents an opportunity. If the world can take rapid, expensive action to save its banks, it can do the same to save its climate. We’ve been in the red for too long, with both our finances and the planet.
In ten years few people will remember the current financial crisis but their wellbeing and prosperity will be directly affected by the fundamental, long-term decisions our world leaders make now about energy and climate.
The crucial test is Poznan. May our representatives not make New Zealand a laughing stock.