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Failing Governance, Unsustainable Planet

Michael Renner and Tom Prugh

In early November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, the strongest cyclone to make landfall in recorded history. It killed thousands of people, displaced more than 4 million, and left 2.5 million in need of food aid. Hitting just before the round of climate negotiations known as the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it was yet another reminder of the climate-charged superstorms and other disasters that lie in store if countries do not act with due haste to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It prompted the Philippines' chief negotiator at COP 19, Yeb Sano, to announce that he would fast until conference participants made “meaningful” progress.

Cold, hard data reinforce the sense that humanity is at an unprecedented crossroads that requires a sharp departure from politics and business as usual. In 2012, global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuel burning and cement production climbed to a new peak of 9.7 billion tons, and they were projected to reach 9.9 billion tons in 2013. The 2.7 percent average annual increase in emissions during 2003–12 was almost triple the rate of the previous decade. In early 2013, the concentration of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere for the first time crossed the threshold of 400 parts per million. The chances of limiting global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) within this century are “swiftly diminishing,” in the judgment of Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. This goal was endorsed by governments in 2010 as a “safe” maximum to avoid the worst consequences, although some regard it as still too high. Yet under current government policies, global greenhouse gas emissions still will be 8 to 12 billion tons higher than the maximum allowable in 2020, likely leading to a warming of 3.7 degrees Celsius or worse.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that current policies could raise temperatures by as much as 6 degrees Celsius.

Although governments pay lip service to the goal of keeping climate change within tolerable limits, they have fallen far short of needed action in many ways. International climate governance has been marked by increased wheel spinning in recent years, and policies in several countries now represent a weakening of earlier commitments. An analysis by Climate Action Tracker warns of a “major risk of downward spiral in ambition, a retreat from action and recarbonization of the energy system.”

Recent actions by Australia's new government, for example, could cause that country's greenhouse gas emissions to increase 12 percent by 2020 (instead of being reduced 5 percent from 2000 levels, as pledged earlier). Japan abandoned its 2020 target for cutting national emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels in favor of a much less ambitious cut of 3.8 percent. Canada barrels ahead in developing its carbon-intensive tar sands deposits. And the Polish government opted to welcome an “international coal and climate summit” staged by the World Coal Association at the very same time that it hosted the most recent round of international climate talks. For the climate conference itself, Poland accepted corporate sponsorship from leading car manufacturers, oil companies, builders of coal power plants, and steel manufacturers.

Climate change is certainly not the only factor undermining sustainability, but no other phenomenon carries such risks to the survival of planetary civilization. Climate change interacts with and exacerbates many other issues of concern for environmental integrity and human well-being—such as water availability and food production, biodiversity, health, disaster protection, and employment. It has far-reaching socioeconomic and political implications. The international governance processes for climate protection and for sustainable development (the Rio+20 conference and its aftermath) proceed largely on separate tracks, but the year 2015 will be a key milestone for both of them.

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