12/09/2011 11:50 AM

Addressing Climate Change

'Humankind Cannot Afford Negotiations Until 2020'

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban it is becoming apparent that, instead of making decisions, the global community intends to continue negotiating new climate goals until 2020. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Achim Steiner, the head of the United Nations Environment Program, calls the delay "irresponsible."

SPIEGEL ONLINE : At the climate negotiations in Durban, the year 2020 is now being named as a new target date for a binding global climate treaty. What do you think of that?

Steiner: If humankind hopes to, at least somewhat, contain global warming, it cannot afford to spend eight years negotiating. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it crystal clear that global CO2 emissions must decline before 2020. And the International Energy Agency (IEA) warns that the most important decisions on the energy supply of the future will already have been made by 2020. In other words, putting everything off until 2020 would be irresponsible.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How far do global emissions of greenhouse gases have to decline by 2020?

Steiner: We are now at a level of about 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, and we are on track to reaching 56 billion tons by 2020. But this has to be reduced to 44 billion tons by then if there is to be any hope that the average temperature in the atmosphere will not increase by more than the dangerous threshold of 2 degrees Celsius. To reach this goal, we have to act immediately, and not wait until 2020.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In light of the stalled negotiations, couldn't a few years of reflection be useful?

Steiner: If the pressure is now removed from the negotiating process, the price of CO2 emissions will decline wherever polluters are required to acquire emissions certificates. And if the price of emissions hits rock bottom, many investments in renewable forms of energy will no longer make economic sense. Waiting too long not only jeopardizes climate protection, but also the ability of the economy to take action.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Wouldn't it make more sense economically to wait until new technologies are available?

Steiner: No. On the contrary, the longer we wait, the more expensive it will be to contain climate change. If new coal power plants were to come online in the coming years and then had to be shut down again, it could end up being very expensive indeed.

SPIEGEL ONLINE : So what should happen?

Steiner : What cannot happen is that we just keep on negotiating until 2020. But even if a global climate treaty does take effect by 2020, it could already be too late for the necessary changes. It is imperative that a reliable plan to start reducing emissions in the coming years be crafted in Durban. The best incentive is still a global climate treaty.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: China has announced that it could become a signatory to a global climate treaty by 2020. Is this an important reversal?

Steiner: China is indeed signaling an important change of direction. This is all the more relevant, now that major industrialized countries like Canada and Japan are moving away from the only binding agreement, the Kyoto Protocol. I think there is more to the Chinese announcement than negotiating tactics. The key issue, however, is what this will mean in practice in the coming years, and whether China manages to uncouple economic growth from CO2 emissions in the long term.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you think the EU should do in Durban?

Steiner: The EU can be a trailblazer and show greater conviction that the green economy can generate tomorrow's prosperity. The right step is to demand an ambitious target date for a global climate treaty well ahead of 2020.

Interview conducted by Christian Schwägerl. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.


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