Nov 20 2009

By Maurice Strong (*)

BEIJING, (IPS) The current economic and climate change crises are both rooted in the unsustainable nature of the existing economic system. The rapid and unexpected economic meltdown, which began in the United States and quickly spread throughout the world demonstrated dramatically that the phenomenon of globalization and interdependence has a dramatic downside of shared risks and vulnerability.

This dictates that we must manage these crises cooperatively on a systemic, integrated basis ­rather than as separate and often competing issues.

Some, however, still contend that we can only deal with the risks of climate change and repair the damage from environmental degradation after we fix the global economy. This is the height of folly. Waiting while merely patching up the current economic model would only exacerbate the imminent threats to our civilization.

China’s role in the negotiations now underway in preparation for December’s Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Climate Change Convention in Copenhagen will be decisive. It must produce binding and enforceable commitments with penalties for noncompliance. So we must learn from the many agreements and conventions that governments have committed to in the past but seldom complied with. If they had done so we would not be in the current state of crisis.

China and India are now the main source of increases in global emissions and will be under heavy pressure to accept specific targets. China, India, and other newly developing nations will rightly insist on greater reductions by the main industrialized countries, which are primarily responsible for the accumulated emissions that have brought the world’s climate to today’s dangerous threshold. This must be accompanied by commitments to provide massive support to developing nations to enable them to reduce their emissions without impairing their continuing economic growth.

The optimistic scenario for Copenhagen would include agreement on a Climate Security Program, or, at least the main elements thereof, combined with establishment of a “Climate Security Fund” to finance implementation of the program. More developed countries would commit resources to this fund on a formula proportional to their emissions and their gross domestic product. The scale of such a fund ­initially on the order of at least $1 trillion­ is far beyond anything that more developed countries are contemplating. It will likely be viewed as unrealistic, particularly in light of the global financial and economic crisis. Still, this price tag is less than the cost to the US alone of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Such a level of funding, particularly under current circumstances, will require new and innovative means. These could include fees for the use of the global commons, for example, the oceans, the atmosphere, and outer space that are not under national jurisdiction, taxes on fossil fuels and other sources of emissions, and penalties for those who fall behind in meeting targets.

This need not come primarily from new money that rather from massive reallocation of existing funds so at the additional taxes and fees are all set by corresponding reductions in existing tax and subsidies.

The catastrophic impacts of growing carbon emissions will affect the entire globe, no matter where the emissions originate. As such, large-scale assistance to developing countries accompanied by much expanded programs which
enable them to earn credits from their capacity to reduce emissions at a lower cost than more developed countries offers cost-effective investments in climate security.

The investments we make to achieve climate security will generate new opportunities both for businesses and individuals that will make major contributions to the establishment of the new economy. Thus, both in their origins and solutions, the environmental and economic crises are inextricably linked.

The capitalism which has produced the current crises concentrates its benefits in a small minority of the population while widening the gap between them and the majority, particularly the poor. This is clearly inequitable and as we have learned from the current crises it is not sustainable.

It is a sad commentary on the morality of our civilization that we devote more of our resources to development and deployment of sophisticated weaponry and killing power than on meeting the humanitarian and social needs of people and protecting the environmental viability of our planet.

China and the US combined produce some 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. While all countries must cooperate in meeting the climate change challenge, the cooperation of the US and China will be essential.

China has now surpassed the US as the main source of carbon emissions; but it is still well behind in per capita terms. The average Chinese produces only one-fifth as much in carbon emissions as the average American. Indeed, since the dawn of the industrial revolution, the US has generated more than 1.1 trillion tons of carbon emissions from fossil fuels compared to China’s 300 billion tons.

There are immense opportunities for China and the US to reduce their carbon emissions through increased energy efficiency.

We are the first generation in history to have the ability and responsibility to determine the future of life on Earth. We cannot afford to be complacent in the belief that whatever we do, life will go on. We must realize that the
conditions which make life possible as we know it have only existed for a very brief period of our planet’s long history and within very narrow limits. It is clear that humans are now impinging on these limits at a speed and on a scale beyond our ability to adjust or adapt. Human existence is at real and imminent risk. But the prospect of success, however challenging, is also very real. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Maurice Strong was the Secretary General of the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, first Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and Secretary General of the 1992 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment ( http://www.mauricestrong.net).

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