DW-WORLD.DE spoke with Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Program, as US-sponsored talks between the world's biggest greenhouse-gas polluters got underway.
The UN climate expert said the Washington meeting could be a positive step forward
On Thursday, Sept. 27, a US-sponsored, two-day meeting of the world's biggest greenhouse gas polluters got underway. The talks are billed as a prelude to a December negotiating session in Bali, Indonesia, aimed at formulating a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.
The Washington talks came hard on the heels of a similar gathering on Monday when the United Nations hosted a major meeting -- attended by heads of state and celebrity environmentalists like former US Vice-President Al Gore and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- on how to fight climate change.
Steiner said US engagement on global warming is "a positive sign"
Representatives from the world's richest nations as well as key emerging economies, including Brazil, China and India were present in Washington.
The talks were seen as highlighting the difference between the Bush administration's call for voluntary measures to fight global warming and the binding targets sought by the UN and the European Union.
Steiner spoke to DW-WORLD.DE about what contribution a US-led conference could make to the climate-change effort.
DW-WORLD.DE: How does the US meeting fit into broader UN efforts on climate change?
Achim Steiner: I think, following the very successful meeting on Monday in New York ... there is clearly an understanding that the solution, the pathway, and the context within which we can develop a global climate change response has to be in the context of the United Nations. In particular the UN Framework Convention for Combating Climate Change.
Any meeting at the moment that serves to bring states together to think creatively about what could be the elements of a post-Kyoto agreement is obviously welcome. The meeting in Washington could prove to be one of those steps along the way.
Some critics have said the meeting is a cynical attempt by the Bush administration to undermine planned talks in Bali later this year, where signatories will meet to initiate a follow-up plan for the Kyoto Protocol.
Polar ice is melting ever more quickly
I don't believe that we should dismiss in advance a meeting of the major emitters, particularly when the United States is taking part, after having been rather reluctant to engage on this issue in a global context in recent years.
Clearly the origins of this meeting may in some quarters have been intended as an alternative approach. But I think we have to take the President of the United States seriously when, at a G8 meeting [in June, in Heiligendamm, Germany], he commits the United States to working with the UN on seeking an agreement in the context of the framework convention. … Right now it is a positive sign, and I think one should take it seriously that the US is engaging more actively than it has for a number of years in seeking a consensus on how to move forward.
The test as always will rely on the results of that meeting.
Up to now the US has supported voluntary emissions reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. Do you see voluntary emissions cuts as realistic?
Clearly from the point of view of current premise on which the UN framework convention and Kyoto Protocol is based, the approach of voluntary targets is not considered adequate in terms of reaching the kind of emissions reductions we know we have to strive for, which is at least halving by 2050 greenhouse gas emissions on our planet.
California is the first US state to impose a cap on greenhouse emissions
And I think also in the US there are very different approaches. It was Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at the climate change summit on Monday in New York who spoke before the general assembly, and basically made it very clear that, in California, the setting of targets and also emission limits clearly was part of triggering an innovation drive in the Californian economy. If you recall that California is now the 7th largest economy in the world, you can see there are different views in the United States. Let us also remember that it was 20 US corporations -- large, internationally active corporations -- who wrote a letter to George Bush earlier this year, requesting him to take a more proactive approach towards climate change issues.
So I believe the discussion in the US is more alive than it has been for a while. But for the moment, the ultimate test has to be: Can we assure greenhouse gas emission reductions on a level that has been called for by the evidence that we now have? And there is certainly doubt whether this can be achieved with voluntary targets. ´
The EU is trying to take a leadership role when it comes to setting binding emissions cuts, but the US and China seem thoroughly opposed. Can they find common ground at this meeting?
If you look at 2007, what you have seen clearly is significant movement on a number of fronts. At least the US and UN are no longer debating on fundamental differences about the scientific foundations that define the imperative to act. Secondly, the US has reaffirmed its commitment to working in the context of the United Nations, which is an important development compared to a year ago. And thirdly, at Heiligendamm, you even saw an acknowledgement of the kinds of emissions reductions that would have to be achieved.
So, now we are debating the instruments. I think if we were still arguing about whether climate change is taking place, and whether we need to react, it would be a very depressing prospect. In that sense, there is room for conditional optimism. We have now moved beyond that kind of debate and are talking about instruments and approaches.
I think it is important that industrialized and developing nations look for common ground rather than pointing at the other side as a reason why there is no room for one's own domain.
How much is the increased public awareness of global warming likely to affect the outcome of this meeting?
Concerts like Live Earth boost public awareness of global warming
I don't want to say we should look at the Washington meeting as automatically producing consensus -- I think we are far from that. But this meeting comes at a point in time, following the high level event in New York on Monday, where the world is much more united in a sense of urgency and necessity to act together.
The Washington meeting will have to deal with the fact that the public is now so concerned about climate change that it is difficult for political leaders to be seen not moving together and in concert with one another. This meeting will create pressure on Washington to be seen as enabling an international consensus, and not to be seen as standing separate from the international opinions that have formed around this issue.
How important is any post-Kyoto plan that comes out of the Bali meeting?
I believe that if Bali turns out to be a meeting in which the world does not take the next step forward, we will be faced with a very grim prospect: losing, essentially, the capacity to act as a community of 190-plus nations, to address an issue that no country on this planet can address in isolation.
If we were to not make progress in Bali, we also risk losing to some extent the effectiveness of an instrument that is remarkable in terms of its ambition and its encompassing nature, which is the UN Framework Convention on Combating Climate Change.
In that sense, Bali is a dramatic turning point. Either the world steps back from its approach of working together and retreats into national economic interest strategies or regional approaches, or it takes the convention process to a whole new level, in terms of qualitative and quantitative approaches to dealing with this issue. That makes this meeting in December one of the most important to deal with this issue, since 1992 when the convention was agreed in Rio de Janeiro.