MANILA – A great deal hinges on a worldwide agreement to reduce carbon emissions at a summit in Paris this year. Some momentum is finally building for securing unified commitments from nearly 200 countries. But to avert a climate catastrophe in time, far more will be needed from countries, beyond what a multilateral agreement alone can bring.
This is because an agreement in Paris won’t come into effect until 2020, and a multilateral deal is unlikely, on its own, to be enough. So a global stand must be bolstered by country initiatives, including greater energy efficiency and a switch to low carbon-energy use, to help address the socioeconomic effects of climate change that are already being felt.
This will make economic sense as the cost of climate-related hazards — floods, storms, droughts and heat waves — are on the rise. The monsoon floods that hit Thailand’s industrial center in 2011 caused some $46 billion in economic losses. The destruction from Hurricane Sandy in the U.S. in 2012 was estimated at $68 billion.
Japan is also at the sharp end: A landslide last year from intense rain in Hiroshima, claimed 74 lives, affected over 4,000 households, and caused severe damage. With such losses at stake, it will pay to invest in disaster resilience. Japan, among the top in country rankings for exposure to natural hazards, illustrates the payoffs to early warning systems and disaster mitigation.
A strengthened framework for disaster resilience is needed, and promoting this among United Nations member states is the goal of the Third World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction in March in Sendai.
Unfortunately many countries have been reluctant to act individually in the absence of similar moves by others, especially the top emitters, on fears that unilateral action will slow their economic growth. This concern is evident in the slowing, blocking or reversing of environmental regulations: For example, the United States’ inflexibility in earlier climate negotiations, the opposition to carbon curbs of fossil fuel-dependent economies such as Russia, and Australia’s reversal of a carbon tax.
Imagine, however, if climate-related disasters hurt nations in proportion to their emissions. Had this happened, individual country responses may even have been sufficient — and certainly swift, without the tortuous global climate negotiations we have seen in the past two decades.
Climate-related damages and the atmospheric emissions of countries are anything but proportional. Consider the Philippines, where I have lived for the past three years. The country is home to over 100 million people and is ranked at the top worldwide on measures of climate vulnerability. Yet it is responsible for only 0.3 percent of the emissions.
Ironically the dicey position of the Philippines illustrates the case for proactive responses. At the United Nations climate summit in New York last September, the country’s president, Benigno Aquino, announced his government’s intention not to wait for others to act, but to tackle the climate challenge “to the maximum with our limited resources” with programs to improve disaster resilience and encourage re-greening, including planting 1.5 billion trees by 2016.
The big emitters, too, are beginning to step up to the plate, albeit belatedly. U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan, announced last June, to reduce emissions from power plants to 30 percent below 2005’s level by 2030 is the sort of action needed to embolden others to take unilateral steps.
Global trade blazed a similar trail on taking unilateral action. Developing economies in recent decades opened up international trade — by lowering quantitative restrictions on imports, for example — even when multilateral trade rounds were going nowhere. Economic gains to the reformers were substantial.
Regrettably showing similar mettle in climate action without a global framework will not work. Unlike trade liberalization where markets for trade in goods and services existed, markets for carbon trading need to be encouraged and underpinned by universal agreements on emission targets and commitments.
This is the desired outcome of December’s Paris summit. Some of the major economies have now started to show the way.
Last November, the United States and China, which together emit more than 40 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide, agreed to cap their carbon emissions. And European Union leaders have agreed to cut carbon emissions by at least 40 percent by 2030.
True, these are pledges and not binding commitments. But they send a signal to all, amid a noticeable rise in climate-related floods and droughts in recent years and persuasive scientific evidence on global warming.
The crucial question is whether emerging country actions — by governments, businesses and households — are too little, too late. Changes on the needed scale can happen, but only if we realize that climate risks are local and imminent and that climate mitigation is in our own interest.
Vinod Thomas is director general of Independent Evaluation at Asian Development Bank, Manila.