Beyond Copenhagen: sub-national solutions are now key

December 22, 2009

Julian Hunt.jpg- Julian Hunt is visiting professor at Delft University and formerly director general of the UK meteorological office. Charles Kennel is distinguished professor of atmospheric science, emeritus and senior advisor to the sustainability solutions institute, UCSD. The opinions expressed are their own. -

The non-legally binding “deal” agreed at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen among the U.S., China, Brazil, South Africa and India, has brought to a conclusion what has proved an extraordinarily complex set of negotiations.

The outcome has been criticised on numerous grounds and, in U.S. President Barack Obama’s own words, “We have much further to go”.

In effect, the agreement may ultimately amount to no more than a long-term climate change dialogue between Washington and Beijing.  While global action to tackle emissions of carbon dioxide must remain a priority, the fact remains that we may be heading towards a future in which no long-term, comprehensive successor to the Kyoto regime is politically possible.

One of the chief flaws in the Copenhagen negotiations was the fact that the overly-ambitious political deals being discussed were not realistic, nor framed to inspire people to act and collaborate with each other across the world on both a local and regional level.  Going forwards, national governments will need to be more honest about future likely emissions and also of future temperature changes.  In this crucial debate, scientists must be free to state their estimates without political bias.

In the absence of a new global deal, it is now crucial that the centre of gravity of decision-making on how we respond to climate change moves towards the sub-national level.  This may also have the effect of re-energising future global climate change talks as environment diplomacy could certainly be furthered by policies decided at the local and regional level.

The need for such a paradigm shift from a “top-down” to a “bottom-up” approach is becoming clearer by the day.

Over the last decade, records of weather and climate trends have revealed larger and more unusual regional and local variations — some unprecedented since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago.  Among such warning signs are the disappearing ice fields around the poles and on all mountain ranges, more frequent droughts in Africa and now in wet regions (such as the 2006 drought in Assam India, previously one of the wettest places in the world), floods in dry regions (as recently, the worst floods in 50 years in northwest India), and ice storms in sub-tropical China in 2008 (for the first time in 150 years).

Such extreme events threaten sustainable development around the world, natural environments are destroyed irreversibly, and economic growth is slowed.

One of the most compelling advocates this month at Copenhagen for sub-national solutions for tackling climate change was California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  As the state of California, and legislators in Globe and city governments are putting into practice, adaptation needs to build on existing knowledge and infrastructures in local settings.

Forming loose collaborative networks will enable regional facilitation centres, their experts and decision makers to learn from one another and also draw upon the resources of existing national and international databases and programmes, such as those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) and the growing number of consortia linking major cities, local governments, and the private sector.

Experience shows that this ‘bottom-up’ approach works very effectively as it is only generally when sub-national areas learn how they will be specifically affected by climate change that widespread, grassroots political action can be aroused.

Although regional variations in climate change are approximately predicted by IPCC global climate models, more local measurements and studies are needed for sub-national governments, industry and agriculture to better understand their local climatic situation and develop reliable and effective strategies to deal with all the ways that climate change affects their activities and well being.

Hence, the increasing numbers of regional monitoring centres which, by communicating and interpreting these predictions and uncertainties, are contributing towards local adaptation plans:

•    In China, where provinces require targets for power station construction, regional environmental and climate change centres are now well developed.
•    In the United States, a recent report has highlighted the value of non-official centres, such as a severe storm centre in Oklahoma, which gives independent advice to communities and businesses, while relying on government programmes for much of the data.
•    In Brazil, a regional data centre is providing data and predictions about agriculture and deforestation and informs legislation about policy options.

What this activity points to is the need for a global network of such centres to support national climate initiatives, and to facilitate international funding and technical cooperation in delivering the right information to the right place, at the right time.

Local actions can only be effective if measurements of climate and environment are made regularly and are publicised as well as information about targets, and projections of emissions.  Experience shows that full exposure is needed about what is happening, what is planned, and how every individual can be involved (as the Danes show by their community investment in wind power).

Historically, it is cities that have helped lead the vanguard towards tackling major environmental challenges.

It is therefore unsurprising that it is individual cities that are seeking to adopt some of the most innovative ways of adapting to worsening climate hazards, including showing how to integrate these measures with considerable savings in costs — such as putting windmills on dykes as in Rotterdam.

For instance, a recent “civic exchange” meeting in Hong Kong considered solutions for how major cities in China will strive to reach targets for reductions in emissions as stringent as those in developed countries.  This is a very ambitious objective, since in China the carbon emission per person per year is 6 tons, compared with 10 tons in the EU, and 25 tons in the United States.

Taken overall, the cumulative effect of such sub-national actions may well determine the speed and effectiveness of global responses to climate change.  The message is clear.  ‘Localisation of action and data’ must be the post-Copenhagen priority if we are to tackle the global warming menace.Julian Hunt.jpg

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