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Climate change: time to go that extra mile

By Achim Steiner
Executive Director UNEP

In terms of climate change, the world is heading into uncharted waters as leaders of the most industrialised countries prepare to gather for the G20 summit hosted by Russia in St. Petersburg.

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In May NASA’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii announced that the concentration of carbon dioxide – the most important heat-trapping gas – in Earth’s atmosphere had passed a level of 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human history.

UNEP WINDFARM 4With world population expected to increase from 7 billion to over 9 billion by 2050, experts from the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and other organisations estimate that global average temperatures may rise as much as  4-5°C this century without decisive and defining action.
But this sobering reality in many ways masks some remarkable transformations in the global economy which if accelerated and scaled-up could lead to the kinds of emission cuts scientists say are needed by 2020 and beyond to keep a global temperature rise under 2°C.

For example in 2012 investment worldwide in the renewable sector was $244 billion, a 12% decrease over the year but still the second highest total recorded. Indeed since 2006, some $1.3 trillion has been invested.
The geographical spread is also encouraging with China but also other developing countries such as South Africa, Morocco, Mexico and Chile making increasingly significant investments. A drop in the cost of solar photovoltaic technology, by about one-third since 2011, has also brought the price of small-scale residential solar energy much closer to competitiveness with fossil fuels – an important democratisation of the climate change challenge putting the levers of change into the hands of households and individual citizens.

There remain those who say renewables cannot be scaled-up, but this is also being consigned to history. In July for example Germany generated a record 23.9 Gigawatts (GW) of electricity from solar, enough to power 2.3 million homes. It now generates a quarter of all electricity from renewable sources.

In the same month, the world’s two largest economies – and largest emitters of greenhouse gases – the United States and China reached an agreement to co-operate in a number of key areas including developing more fuel engines for large trucks, energy efficient building and smarter electricity grids.

They have also pledged to work more closely on replacements for hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – while ozone-layer friendly these substances have a huge potential for aggravating climate change if taken up widely as replacements in for example air conditioning systems.

All members of the G8 Group of nations plus many G20 countries have launched with UNEP the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. Its aim is to phase down the so-called short-lived pollutants including HFCs, black carbon from diesel emissions and sources such as the oil, gas and brick-making industries and methane from landfills.

These pollutants not only contribute to global warming but have been shown to damage human health and crop yields. Action to tackle them could make a rapid impact on the melting of ice caps and glaciers. St. Petersburg could provide an opportunity for Russia to formalise its membership of this coalition.

There are other low hanging fruits:  UNEP along with the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN recently launched the ‘Think.Eat.Save, Reduce Your Foodprint’ campaign to combat the extraordinary fact that at least one-third of food produced throughout the world – 1.3 billion tonnes – is lost or wasted.

This is an ethical and will be increasingly an economic issue, but it is also a climate change challenge: if food waste and loss was a country it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

The opportunities for combating climate change and realising a new, universal agreement by 2015 under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change by 2015 are manifest – the final key to unlocking a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy will be finance.

Over the short term action to, for example phase down and out the estimated $600 billion worth of fossil fuel subsidies and divert this into the UN’s Green Climate Fund could pump prime action while cutting annual C02 emissions by an estimated 13%.

Indeed the real support for fossil fuels may be well over $1 trillion a year according to the International Monetary Fund when externalities are factored in from the health impacts of air pollution to damage linked to climate change.

A new indicator of wealth, which governments and experts have been working on since the Rio+20 Summit last year, bring the invisibility of these ‘externalities’ into the visible spectrum of national accounts of profit and loss.

Backed by more systematic and transparent corporate sustainability reporting this could assist institutional investors – like pension funds and insurance companies – with global assets of more than $70 trillion, invest in low carbon infrastructure and more resource efficient companies who are looking to the future not the past.

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