During the first two weeks of November, we were spectators of a crucial global conference: the climate change summit in Glasgow. The theme of this event has been characterized as “existential”, and it is: it’s about nothing less than ensuring that our planet is habitable.
The fight against climate change is, above all, an economic problem: how can we guarantee, with production processes and consumption patterns, that the emission of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, but also methane and others, is curbed by the middle of this century.
The goal set by the 2015 Paris summit was to avoid global warming greater than 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels, and certainly below 2°C, above which there would be catastrophic effects: frequent natural disasters, faster rising sea levels, melting of the poles and the snow mountains in the tropics, and species extinction, among others. As we have already experienced global warming of 1.1°C, the challenge is, therefore, enormous.
The core global response must be a radical change in the sources of energy production and its use. Coal-based energy production must be discontinued as soon as possible, followed by oil-based forms. Energy-intensive economic activities, such as steel and aluminum production and transportation, must shift towards alternative sources. All this requires a fundamental technological change, which is feasible, as indicated by the revolution in wind and solar energy, and the emerging hydrogen fuel technologies.
In addition, cattle farming needs to radically changed to avoid deforestation, as well as the emission of methane. As a Latin American, I should remind policy authorities that the region’s main contribution to climate change has been deforestation.
In addition to the economic challenges, climate change is a problem of equity. First and foremost, of intergenerational equity, as we need to guarantee that our descendants will have a planet on which they can live. It is also a challenge of international equity, as we need to avoid the devastating effects of climate change on the tropics and the disappearance of several islands.
Questions of equity extend to the relationship between developed and developing countries as well, since historically, the former have been the main source of greenhouse gas emissions, while the latter will withstand the worst of its consequences. And it is, finally, a problem of social equity, since it is estimated that one tenth of the world's population with the highest income generates half of the emissions.
In the coming months, countries need to adopt specific commitments to fulfill the objectives agreed upon at the summit. This is not a minor objective, since those acquired after the Paris summit would lead to a 2.7°C warming, and must, therefore, be substantially strengthened. In addition, effective mechanisms must be adopted to ensure compliance. This is not a minor issue, since there is a tradition of non-compliance, as exemplified by the failure of the Kyoto Protocol and fact that developed countries did not provide by 2020 the 100 billion dollars per year to developing countries in order to combat climate change.
An additional task is to secure effective agreements in critical areas. In this sense, the Glasgow summit led to several successes, such as the commitment of more than 100 countries to halt deforestation and reduce methane emissions at least 30% by 2030. Additionally, twelve countries and several private firms committed to contribute resources to conserve the biodiverse tropical forests. And, very importantly, the United States and China agreed to collaborate on the control of emissions, even though the agreement lacks details.
Unfortunately, countries were unable to agree to the end of gasoline or diesel vehicle sales from 2035 onward. Negotiations with the air and maritime transport industries to mitigate their impacts on climate change during the weeks prior to the summit were also unsuccessful.
All of these agreements are necessary, but more necessary still is that countries be subject to strict compliance of the commitments they make. We have to ensure that our planet is habitable!
About the author
José Antonio Ocampo is Professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Member of Columbia’s Committee on Global Thought, and Chair of the Committee for Development Policy of the United Nations Economic and Social Council. He has occupied numerous positions at the United Nations, including UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), as well as in his native Colombia, including as Minister of Finance, Minister of Agriculture, Director of National Planning, and Member of the Board of Directors of the central bank. He tweets at @JoseA_Ocampo. A slightly different version of this post was first published by El Tiempo under title La cumbre de cambio climático.