The results of the United Nations climate change conference that closed in Doha, Qatar, last Saturday week again show that the international negotiations are moving steadily in the right direction, but alarmingly slowly.
At the heart of these negotiations is nothing less than the most challenging energy transformation the world has seen. Past energy transitions have taken a long time to unfold. Firewood was mankind's first energy source and was not displaced by coal until the 18th century. With an increasing pace of technological advance, it took one century for oil to replace coal as the primary global energy source. Climate change is not the only motivation to move toward more renewables and enhanced energy efficiency, but it has injected unequivocal urgency into an otherwise normal evolution.
Science tells us that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak this decade and decrease rapidly thereafter. More importantly, it must occur soon if we are to lessen human costs. Extreme weather events in every region of the world provide ample proof of the mounting human costs, particularly to the most vulnerable.
The UN is the only platform that grants all countries access to global decision-making. The shift toward low carbon requires global participation because every country is already affected by climate change and because of the need to deliberately guide an accelerated global changeover. Furthermore, the scale and pace of economic development driven by technology and the free movement of capital makes global participation essential. The low-emission economies of today will become high-emission economies of tomorrow faster than was ever possible unless they are adequately supported and encouraged to engineer clean energy futures.
Following important steps forward over the past two years at Cancun and Durban, in Doha 37 countries (all European Union members, Australia, Belarus, Croatia, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Norway, Switzerland, and Ukraine) adopted legally binding emission reduction targets bringing them collectively to a level 18 per cent below their 1990 baselines over the next eight years.
Also, all countries confirmed their determination to reach an agreement by December 2015, based on the latest science. Governments are clearly steering the world towards a major transformation, but have not yet proven their intent through a robust and immediate implementation of what has already been promised.
The UN is the venue for global decision-making, but domestic interests in resource sustainability, stability and competitiveness are the powerful drivers of action on climate change. In response to the slow but steady progress in international negotiations, and to capitalise on the new low-carbon economy, 33 countries and 18 sub-national jurisdictions will have carbon pricing in place in 2013, covering 30 per cent of the global economy and 20 per cent of emissions. By 2011, 118 countries had climate-change legislation or renewable energy targets, more than double the number in 2005. There are increasing local, voluntary efforts to reduce deforestation and emissions not covered by the UN framework. In 2010, renewables accounted for 20.3 per cent of worldwide electricity, compared to 3.4 in 2006. Investment in clean energy has surpassed $US1 trillion and is expected to grow to almost $US400 billion annually.
The signs of movement toward low-carbon are everywhere, but are still insufficient. Governments have charted the course, but they are moving slowly. None are at maximum potential. The private sector must move more purposefully. The finance sector must invest more aggressively. Technology must advance more rapidly. No one is exempt from the responsibility, or from the opportunity, to contribute to the solution.
We need maximum effort from everyone. We need to move beyond the zero-sum mentality to co-operative action in pursuit of an urgent shared objective. We need mutually reinforcing efforts to accelerate the momentum toward a low-emission economy. Together we can migrate from the politics of blame to the politics of opportunity.
The 2015 agreement must ensure equitable participation of all nations and be responsive to the exigencies of science. Above all, it must be a testament to the will of our generation to act. Ultimately, history will judge us on whether we have reduced greenhouse gases enough to avoid the worst climate change. The fact is that we can do this right now in ways that both boost the economic sustainability of everyone and at the same time safeguard those most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. And that is why a universal agreement is necessary and possible.
Christiana Figueres is the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.