Obama signals global shift on climate change

June 25, 2013

President Barack Obama rolls up his shirt sleeve before speaking about his vision to reduce carbon pollution at Georgetown University in Washington, June 25, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing  

President Barack Obama unveiled his national plan Tuesday to “reduce carbon pollution and lead global efforts to fight” climate change. He intends to rely heavily on executive actions rather than seeking congressional legislation.

This plan, coming less than a year after Superstorm Sandy’s extensive flooding, also focuses on preparing the United States for the effects of near-term climate change.

The latest Government Accountability Office (GAO) biennial review may have heightened Obama’s urgency, for climate change appeared on its “high risk list” for the first time. The report asserted that climate change presents a “significant financial risk,” and stated Washington needs a “government-wide strategic approach with strong leadership” in response.

Obama’s plan will likely be welcomed by many worldwide, since it comes when the global battle against the huge risks of climate change seems leaderless. For example, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change summit in December made only modest progress, despite the fact that evidence keeps mounting that our planet is heating up.

These latest U.S. developments, however, demonstrate that we may be at the point when the international tide decisively turns on tackling climate change. Consider what is already happening at national and sub-national levels across the globe.

In stark contrast to the lack of progress in international negotiations, domestic laws and regulations to address climate change are being passed at an increasing rate.  Just in the past year, according to a recent report, 32 of 33 surveyed countries (including the United States) have introduced or are moving ahead with significant climate legislation or related regulation. These 33 countries collectively account for more than 85 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

This trend is game-changing.

Within the last 12 months:

  • China, after releasing its 12th five-year plan in 2011, has issued detailed environmental implementation guidelines, including rules for emissions, carbon trading pilots, progress with drafting its climate change law and publication of an energy white paper. Sub-national legislation passed in Shenzhen in late October specifically tackled climate change — the first such legislation in China.
  • Mexico has passed a general law on climate change — a comprehensive legislative framework.
  • South Africa has proposed a carbon tax in its latest budget.
  • South Korea passed legislation to begin a nationwide emissions trading scheme by 2015.
  • The European Union passed a new directive on energy efficiency, and Germany strengthened legislation relating to carbon capture and storage and energy efficiency.

Right now, however, it is primarily developing countries — including China, South Africa, Brazil and Indonesia — that are leading this drive for stronger environment laws, since they are likely to provide the motor of global economic growth in coming decades. Many are now concluding it is in their national interest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by embracing low-carbon growth and development, and to better prepare for the impact of climate change.

In China, for example, with dense centers of population and growing megacities, climate change is increasingly recognized as a threat to the country’s development prospects. There has been a rise in temperature of an estimated two degrees Celsius since 1950, and the rise could potentially be even greater than four degrees by 2100 if global emissions continue on predicted trends.

The consequences were spelled out in a Chinese government report last year, including more droughts and floods, which threaten to undermine the country’s prosperity, health and domestic food supplies. There is even a threat from rising sea levels to some key coastal cities and export zones that have helped power the Chinese economy.

Many developing countries see that expanding domestic sources of renewable energy not only cuts emissions but also increases energy security by reducing reliance on imported fossil fuels. In lowering energy demand through greater efficiency, they can reduce costs and increase competitiveness. Improving resilience to possible serious effects of climate change also makes sound economic sense.

Advancing domestic climate legislation and regulations, and benefitting from reduced emissions, is a crucial building block in creating the political conditions that can usher in a comprehensive, global climate agreement.

In addition, this slew of domestic laws alerts the private sector to a shift in public policy, reducing business uncertainty about the government’s position.

With negotiations on a post-2020 comprehensive global deal due to end in 2015, it is unlikely that an ambitious enough agreement will be reached unless more domestic frameworks are in place across the world. Sound domestic actions enhance the prospects of international action, and better international prospects enhance domestic actions.

A potential danger, however, is that some countries might lower their long-term ambition. At a time when the climate change debate could be undergoing such profound change, this would be ill-timed.

Indeed, as in the United States, now is the right time for countries to invest more in tackling climate change, to create the conditions on the ground that will lead to a comprehensive global treaty.


PHOTO (Insert A): A light-emitting, energy-efficient diode (LED) street lamp is illuminated in Langen, Lower Saxony, May 23, 2013. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

PHOTO (Insert B): Rotor-blades at Siemens Wind Power’s port of export in Esbjerg June 11, 2012. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

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