Building Blocks for a Climate Agreement

In the transition to a low-carbon economy, a global registry of national targets for renewable energy and efficiency could lead to a "race to the top" -- a race that Denmark could win just as easily as its bigger neighbors.
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Prior to last year's climate talks in Copenhagen, we served as Special Envoys of the United Nations Secretary-General, seeking to bring the nations of the world together around those negotiations. Like most people involved in the process, we sensed that a comprehensive agreement would elude our grasp, despite our best hopes.

Unfortunately, we were right. Despite the need for progress against a threat that grows more ominous the longer the world waits to act, Copenhagen did not give us the comprehensive agreement we wished for. However, important principles were laid down in the Copenhagen Accord, including agreement on:

  • Taking action to limit the increase in global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius;
  • The need to establish a mechanism to mobilize financial support to combat deforestation;
  • Using markets to promote actions for reduced emissions; and
  • Levels of both short- and long-term climate financing, as well as the establishment of the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund.

Now, a year later, negotiators will gather once again, this time in Cancún, to resume the climate talks and see what progress can be made. As much as we would like to see a new global deal, we believe that the world is still not politically ready for it. Negotiators in Cancún should aim at building the pillars of a future comprehensive agreement, through an approach that seeks to build on the progress achieved in and after Copenhagen and encourages strong national action.

The worsening climate news cries out for action to reduce emissions. The year to date is the second hottest on record. The devastating floods in Pakistan, Russia's drought-stricken wheat fields burning -- these extreme weather events are consistent with the predicted pattern of a warming globe.

Yet these harbingers of a climate-constrained future have not brought a clamor for action in international climate change negotiations. Even so, there are encouraging signs of concrete national action. For example:

  • The EU has put in place strict regulation of emissions and introduced the world's first emission trading scheme, allowing member countries to scale down their emissions in a cost-effective way. The EU is also supporting carbon capture and storage processes and has set binding national targets in order to ensure that renewables reach a 20 percent overall share of the total energy mix by 2020.
  • China has reaffirmed its promise to cut its carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 compared with 2005. The government intends to invest five trillion yuan (more than750 billion) on low-carbon technologies over the next decade, under a plan developed by the National Energy Administration.
  • India, planning to invest2.3 trillion over the next two decades, has taken on substantial targets for renewable energy generation like wind and solar and is reportedly ready to set energy efficiency targets for industry.
  • The United States, building on its strength in innovation, invested a significant portion of its economic stimulus in research and development, including a new program aimed at high-risk "out-of-the-box" transformational energy research.
  • The Republic of Korea earmarked an even greater share of its economic stimulus package to development of a green economy.

These countries recognize that the world inevitably will have to shift to low- and no-carbon energy technologies, and they are acting now to establish leadership positions for the 21st century economy. They also recognize that investments in energy "productivity" -- making better use of every kilowatt-hour generated -- make just as much sense as reducing waste in any other area of business.

In Cancún the negotiators should recognize what countries are saying with their national actions and encourage the shift to a greener energy economy on a global basis. New decisions on energy efficiency and renewable energy, alongside pending agreements on avoided deforestation and land use and on technology development and cooperation, would have immediate impacts on global warming emissions. These steps would also do much to rebuild confidence in the negotiations and set a course toward a broader agreement.

We believe that it is possible to agree on provisions for monitoring, reporting and verification of the implementation of targets and actions. Countries don't hide their progress on clean energy technologies -- they boast about it -- and energy consumption and intensity, the energy consumed per unit of GDP, can be indirectly estimated in a number of ways.

In the transition to a low-carbon economy, a global registry of national targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency could lead to a "race to the top" -- a race that Denmark and the Maldives could win just as easily as their bigger neighbors. As the price of oil rises and the cost of renewable fuels and electricity falls, the best performers will see direct benefit to their economies. But the real winners of such a race will be all of us and our children, who depend upon the climate to live upon this Earth.

Gro Brundtland is the former Prime Minister of Norway. Ricardo Lagos is the former President of Chile.

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