Balancing climate curbs, development a challenge – US negotiator

by Jake Lucas | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 24 October 2013 13:15 GMT

A labourer smiles as he finishes his shift of unloading coal at a power plant in Shenyang, in China's Liaoning province on November 4, 2010. REUTERS/Sheng Li

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With "developing" countries now producing the majority of new climate changing emissions, any new climate deal needs to be inclusive but also fair, US climate negotiator says

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Balancing the needs of poorer countries to develop while holding down growth in climate-changing emissions will be a particular challenge at upcoming U.N. climate negotiations, the chief U.S. climate negotiator said this week.

Todd Stern, special envoy for climate change for the U.S. Department of State, said countries classified as “developing” when the Kyoto Protocol was passed now produce 60 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and are “likely to account for some 68 percent by 2030.”

That means a universal deal to reduce greenhouse gases is now needed, as agreed at U.N. climate negotiations in South Africa in 2011.

But “countries in the midst of the historic project of developing, industrialising and alleviating poverty cannot fairly be asked to embrace obligations that would jeopardize those hopes,” he said in a keynote address at a conference on climate change this week at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

The process of development relies on use of energy, but growth in the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal, in the developing world, could mean already high levels of greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase. That is at odds with science that says such emissions need to fall if the planet is to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, such as more intense storms, droughts and floods.

COAL USE RISING

But other panelists at the Chatham House conference said use of coal is on the rise as a share of energy used to produce electricity in developing countries. Meanwhile, developed countries like the US – with its new reserves of cleaner burning shale gas - are passing measures making it nearly impossible to build new coal fired power plants.

In the Asia Pacific region particularly, power production is booming. Energy experts predict that of the hundreds of gigawatts of new energy production forecast to be developed in the region, close to half of it will come from coal fired power plants.

Experts at the conference said developing countries have strong incentives to keep building coal fired power plants, which create jobs and increase people’s access to power. Fossil fuels are readily available and subsidies make them comparatively cheaper than renewable sources of energy, which require costly investments in new infrastructure.

But getting people living in poverty to to appreciate the environmental dangers fossil fuels present is difficult. For the 1.3 billion people living in poverty, the doomsday narrative of climate change does not make sense when their constant struggle for survival means “every day is doomsday,” said Amina Mohammed, Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development for the United Nations.

IMMEDIATE BENEFITS

With this in mind, conference experts stressed the importance of pointing out the immediate benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions for developing countries.

Johan Kuylenstierna, deputy director of the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York, noted the reducing short-lived climate pollutants may be one of those. Unlike carbon dioxide, short-lived climate pollutants don’t spend a long time in the atmosphere, so curbing their emissions has an immediate impact.

What is more, they have tangible effects on health and agriculture. Reducing black carbon – often produced by cooking fires – and tropospheric ozone could prevent between 700,000 to 4.7 million air pollution deaths every year, according to a primer on short-lived climate pollutants from the Washington-based Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development.

Reducing such short-lived pollutants could also increase annual crop yields from 30 million to 135 million metric tons by restoring plants ability to store carbon, which is inhibited by tropospheric ozone.

Improving air quality has become a development priority in many countries – China this week had to shut down the major northern city of Harbin as a result of excessive pollution – so stressing that taking action to curb climate-changing emissions could also improve air quality could help get them on board for a climate deal, Kuylenstierna said.

Jake Lucas is an AlertNet Climate intern.

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