LONDON/OSLO, Aug 6 - Green economic growth rather than strict targets for cutting greenhouse gases needs higher priority if the world is to reach a deal to fight climate change by a 2015 deadline.
Despite growing scientific evidence of a warming world, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and United Nations talks aimed at doing something about it are moving at a glacial pace.
Years of talks have failed to deliver a deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which set emissions targets for industrial nations. And despite agreement last year to set up a fund to raise aid for poor nations to help them cope with the effects of climate change, it took until last week just to decide who would sit on its governing panel.
“It’s going to be very difficult to reach a deal by 2015,” said Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. He said new approaches were needed to permit economic growth that does not damage the environment.
Yvo de Boer, head of the U.N. climate change secretariat in 2009 when a summit in Copenhagen tried and failed to reach a global deal, called for a re-think to allow greener economic growth, especially for poorer nations.
“The climate change negotiations have focused very heavily on targets, legally-binding regimes and consequences if you fail (to cut emissions),” he told Reuters.
“Not nearly enough focus has been on how we can create an architecture ... which allows countries to engage on climate change while at the same time growing their economies and lifting people out of poverty,” he said.
De Boer, who is now an advisor to accountancy firm KPMG, said there should be more focus on measures such as cleaner standards for power plants, steel mills, paper production or vehicles. Aid to Mali, for instance, could be directed to steel mills to make them as efficient as those in Germany.
Late last year, a United Nations climate conference in South Africa agreed that countries would reach a new worldwide deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2015 so it could come into force by 2020. Until now, only developed nations have had targets to limit emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, which was due to expire at the end of this year but will now be extended.
Emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, rose 3.1 percent in 2011 to a record high, 2011 was the 11th warmest year since records began in the mid-19th century and the decade ended in 2010 was the warmest, U.N. data showed.
Mistrust between rich and poor nations, arguments about who is historically responsible for global warming and fears about the impact of cutting emissions - mainly from burning fossil fuels - on economic growth are among factors braking action on climate change and the increase in floods, heat waves, droughts, crop failures and rising seas that scientists say it will bring.
Under current climate goals, rich nations have promised to cut emissions by 2020 while developing nations led by China and India are seeking to slow the growth of their emissions. Both sides fear restraints will hamper their economic progress.
Last year’s agreement in Durban, South Africa, to work out a pact for all nations was hailed by some as a breakthrough. Many of the most vulnerable states, like low-lying Pacific island nations that fear rising sea levels, want faster action.
“Unless there is immediate progress to dramatically reduce emissions we are moving rapidly to a point where we will have to begin a conversation about adaptation and the relocation of vulnerable populations at a previously unimaginable scale,” said Marlene Moses, chair of the Alliance of Small Island States.
At a May meeting in Bonn, work on seemingly basic procedural issues was slow and old differences resurfaced.
And it took nations - ranging from oil producers like Saudi Arabia to countries like Bangladesh that are vulnerable to rising seas - eight months to agree the group’s board members for a meeting of a Green Climate Fund.
Given slow progress in the U.N. process, some countries, including the United States, are moving forward independently, although some have been helped by a stagnant global economy.
U.S. President Barack Obama aims to cut emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, despite no Senate legislation.
“It’s entirely possible that the United States will achieve that target, or close to it,” Stavins said.
Obama has not trumpeted the advances, he said, as action on climate change is probably not a vote-winner for the November election. Low natural gas prices are causing a shift from coal while fuel efficiency standards for cars and other pollution rules for power plants are also motivating cuts.
Other top emitters are also moving forward, like China, the European Union, Australia and South Korea, with carbon trading schemes, clean technology investment and national legislation.
China plans to cut the amount of carbon emitted per unit of economic output by between 40 and 45 percent by 2020 compared to 2005. A report by BP said China’s emissions reduction efforts to 2020 will cost 10 trillion yuan ($1.57 trillion).
Many countries “are undertaking measures to meet their pledges, even though the (pledges) are not strong enough,” said Jennifer Morgan of the Washington-based World Resources Institute.
Even so, world carbon dioxide emissions rose three percent last year, putting China’s emissions close to those of Europe’s per capita, according to a report last month.
“The new data will certainly play a role in the discussions on current and future action and underline the urgency and need to act,” said Juergen Lefevre, an EU climate change negotiator.
The European Union has promised to cut emissions by at least 20 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels.
Countries have collectively promised to limit temperature rises to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) above pre-industrial times, seen as a threshold to dangerous changes in the Earth’s climate. Current targets and policies are insufficient to reach that goal, the United Nations says.
Climate talks resume later this month in Bangkok when senior officials will prepare for a meeting of environment ministers at the end of the year in Doha, Qatar. Doha’s focus will be on deciding the countries involved and the length of an extension to the Kyoto Protocol.
“We hope that we can persuade others to join (Kyoto),” Lefevre said, referring to the fact that just the European Union and some smaller nations covering only 15 percent of global emissions have committed to more cuts under a Kyoto extension.
Japan, Russia and Canada have said they will not set new targets under Kyoto, while the United States never ratified the 1997 pact. Other large emitters Australia and New Zealand are as yet undecided.
Editing by Janet Lawrence