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No to Green Fundamentalism

BORDEAUX – Climatology and its emphasis on global warming is a comparatively recent addition to science. Yet, despite the relative youth of this research, a clear consensus has emerged: climate change – for which human activity is significantly, though not exclusively, responsible – now threatens our way of life, so we must develop the means to combat it.

But I also believe that the fundamentalist approach that can be sensed in certain circles is skirting the limits of the acceptable. How can fundamentalists advocate limiting economic growth as a solution to the problem of global warming when there are men, women, and children in their hundreds of millions, all over the world, who still lead lives of abject poverty and are in desperate need of help?

People in poor parts of the world have a right to economic development so that they can produce their own food, gain access to clean water, live in adequate shelter, and have all the benefits represented by hospitals and schools. These are essential human rights, and they can be realized only through economic growth, not stagnation.

At the twentieth century’s start, only one person in ten lived in a town or city. Today that figure is one in two – 3.3 billion people, according to United Nations statistics – and the percentage of urban dwellers is expected to reach 70% by 2050. Cities, then, represent the most important development challenge of all. As cities continue to grow and spread across the world, reducing energy consumption and improving our quality of life require us to ensure that their inhabitants can travel relatively short distances to work

The common expression in France that great rivers are created out of tiny streams captures the sort of strategy for countering global warming through sustainable development that I believe could be effective. Local actions that are then developed as part of an exchange between cities could have a global impact in the long term. That is why I am keen to encourage local initiatives that have a global perspective.

Among the issues raised at the Copenhagen climate conference last December was the EU member states’ failure to perfect a post-Kyoto international system for fighting global warming. Fortunately, though, things have changed since then, with the 110 countries responsible for 80% of greenhouse-gas emissions – including India, China, and Brazil – now giving their support to the Copenhagen agreement.

But it is important not to stop there. We must try to ensure that future climate-change meetings, like the Cancún summit this winter, are fully exploited as an opportunity to transform well-intentioned declarations into international agreements that apply to develop and developing countries alike.

The Copenhagen agreement envisages the world’s industrialized nations financing emissions reduction and other necessary adjustments in developing countries through a $30 billion aid package, which will rise to $100 billion between now and 2020. But the agreement fails to specify who will undertake what costs.

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Instead, the agreement limits itself to responding to the widely accepted goal of keeping carbon-dioxide levels below 450 parts per million, and the rise in average global temperature below 2°C. But are these targets realistic? If not, we must bear in mind the warning of the Stern Report that failure to act now would make taking action in the future much more costly.

That all countries taking part in the political process on climate change should be treated equally has ensured that Europe still exerts a good deal of influence. Things have clearly moved on from Copenhagen, when the priority was to reach agreement between those countries that have been chiefly responsible for global warming.

And if my own country, France, has failed to set a good example to developing countries by equivocating over the terms of a carbon tax, then perhaps the time has come for its national carbon footprint to be linked with the European trading system for CO2. The sad truth, though, is that the solution of mixing quotas and taxes will not deliver results quickly enough to bring about a genuine and immediate move to low-carbon or even carbon-free economies.

Ever since Copenhagen, a majority of the main greenhouse-gas-emitting countries have been setting out ambitious goals – without hedging them with restrictive conditions. At the same time, new mechanisms are being put in place to measure and evaluate emissions, which will allow much clearer comparisons between countries. What remains to be done is to share these efforts in a way that is fair and manageable for all countries.

Will we, then, manage to sign a legal and binding agreement in Cancún? Will we be able to implement cooperation mechanisms between countries such as the UN’s Collaborative Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries – the REDD program – so as to prevent deforestation and encourage technology transfer and financing?

This is the real challenge, and although it may prove ambitious, many countries will arrive at the Cancún conference with renewed hope for the future, thanks to the progress made since Copenhagen.

Alain Juppé is France’s Minister of Defense.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Europe’s World, 2010.

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