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Hope amid climate crisis?

Irene QuaileJune 4, 2014

While environment leaders met in Brussels to discuss how to speed up the transition to a green economy, China and the US grabbed headlines with emissions-capping measures. Have we reached a turning point?

Image: DW/I. Quaile

US environment guru Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, had every reason to be upbeat when he addressed the politicians, NGO representatives and business people from across the globe at the three-day Green Week 2014 conference in Brussels that finishes Thursday (06.05.2014).

US President Barack Obama had recently announced measures for a 30-percent cut in emissions from coal-fired power plants - and just in time for the start of a two-week round of UN climate negotiations taking place in Bonn, Germany through 15 June.

In the past, Sachs had not tried to hide his frustrations with the US' position on climate change. Now, he says, we have the makings of an agreement, and the world is breathing a "sigh of relief."

He sees a major step forward that is "deep, bold and consistent with the two-degree target."

New hope?

While there are still numerous hurdles to cross before the US domestic initiative can become reality, the fact that the Obama administration has taken action is being viewed as a positive sign.

An announcement by Chinese climate representative He Jiankun that his country - the world's largest polluter - would put a cap on emissions in the next five-year climate plan has further raised hopes for an effective world climate agreement.

Chinese factories spew smoke into the air.
China (pictured here) pumps out just over a quarter of the world's CO2 emissions to the US' 17 percentImage: Reuters

That agreement is to be finalized in Paris 2015 and could be implemented by 2020.

Though Jiankun has since stressed that he was only conveying his personal opinion, the mere prospect of a new Chinese commitment has brought new momentum to climate talks.

"If you look at the signals coming at the moment from two of the polarities in the international climate debate, the US and China," says United Nations Environment Program Director Achim Steiner, "then you are seeing a very significant shift in their domestic reorientation, which is the foundation for taking a different posture at international levels."

Beyond this week's announcements, both countries have also made progress on the ground, Steiner told DW.

"Their track record over the last couple of years in terms of renewable energy, efficiency, mobility and fuel efficiency all point towards the fact that a significant reorientation of the economy towards low carbon is underway, and that an ability to reach an international agreement on climate change would facilitate this transition."

Too little, too late?

Yet there are many who feel things are not moving fast enough to prepare the world for rising populations, resource depletion and climate change.

US expert Sachs says the massive growth of the world economy, which still relies on fossil fuels, is "hitting planetary boundaries."

While EU Environment Commisioner Janez Potocnik noted that more companies than ever had taken part in Green Week, he also says that Europe is moving in the wrong direction in spite of achievements in health and wealth - a sobering comment from the continent's number one environment man.

Janez Potocnik smiles off-camera in front of a beige backdrop
It's time to change direction, says Janez PotocnikImage: DW/I. Quaile

"We are still living with a 19th-century economic system in the 21st century. Our economic model needs to change direction," he said.

American author and activist Sandra Steingraber went a step further, saying improvements in the US' climate record are due to the use of environmentally irresponsible fracking, with the world held "hostage" by the fossil fuels industry. "We need a vigorous new environment movement to engage in 'hostage rescue,'" she said.

In an interview with DW, WWF Director General Marco Lambertini added that "we are failing to translate the huge awareness of environmental issues into concerted action," citing "Earth Hour" as an example of effective collective action

For James Murray, the editor of the London-based "businessGreen" magazine, "environmentalism is in crisis," the result of greener economic models not becoming mainstream at the pace required, he said.

An energy revolution

UNEP chief Steiner understands why journalist Murray and others see a need for a new "environmentalism" to move things forward faster. "If you are a scientist or environmentalist, you have every reason to be frustrated at the pace of progress," he said.

A man in a business suit in front of a blue poster which reads "UNEP"
Steiner: 'An energy revolution' has happenedImage: DW/I. Quaile

Still, Steiner remains optimistic.

"We have brought a whole energy revolution into place in less than a decade and a half. Last year, the world invested more money in new renewable energy infrastructure than oil, gas and coal together. "

With both the US and China signaling intent to reduce emissions in the future, "a different geopolitical and geo-environmental setting becomes feasible," he said.