Published in Outreach, 18 November 2013
Over the past twenty years, climate negotiations have been dominated by concerns that addressing global warming is anti-business and onerous to future development. The insufficient progress we have made at the last 18 COPs towards ‘preventing dangerous human interference with the climate system,’ the ultimate goal of the UN Climate Convention, is a consequence of this – and the summit currently underway in Warsaw is not exactly on course to make a change. Working in many places around the world, from Haiti to India to Europe and the United States, I have witnessed little success in convincing people of the importance of sacrifice for the global commons. This approach has proven ineffective.
I wrote in this publication a couple of years ago that ‘new energy for the negotiations’ was needed. The article’s title, of course, was a play on words: More than anything else we need to quickly transition to new energy systems built on efficient consumption and renewable resources, as well as decentralised and smart transmission solutions, in order to decarbonise our societies and help them to adapt to climate change. But we also need new, renewable and sustainable energy for the negotiations. Discussing climate mitigation as what can be won, rather than what must be given up, and a strategy that at its core builds on the experiences that already have been made in many places around the world on the way to building low-emissions economies might not just inspire scale-up and replication of on-the-ground action but also revitalise international partnership and ambition.
Aristotle suggested that every human action has a goal (‘telos’), and that the ultimate goal of all human actions is our pursuit of happiness. Constructing sustainability as a cause for the constraint of human action certainly does not evoke the idea of a yardstick for achieving happiness, nor, most likely, unity among actors. On all levels of organisation, from individuals reflecting on their lifestyles to municipalities occupied with urban planning to provinces and federal governments facing vested interests in the unconstrained burning of fossil fuels – I am convinced that we will be able to change course faster and more consistently if we are aware of what can be won: a more peaceful world, sustained economies with better jobs, greener and safer cities, and happier and healthier lives in intact environments.
The recent pictures from the devastation that Typhoon Haiyan left behind gives us a sense of what more frequent and extreme weather events have in store for us. Without doubt, there are very real limits to our behaviour that we must consider; and science tells us with increasing confidence where these thresholds of our joint actions need to be, suggesting a maximum global temperature increase and corresponding atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. In order to reach the level of ambition necessary to stay within our limits, however, we can now build on the remarkable successes that have been achieved in decarbonising human actions in many places worldwide. And what we will find by analysing the frontrunners of low-emissions development is that they are not worse but better off than those that are trailing behind – economically, socially and, needless to mention, environmentally.
Starting from these climate and development success stories, we have to identify real and actionable goals. We might find that we can be much more ambitious than we thought, and that reaching the necessary greenhouse gas reduction targets might be easier than commonly portrayed. Our transition to sustainable societies will be good for us, our cities, our countries, and Earth. Our climate and development discourses have started from different conceptualisations for too long. To successfully address these existential areas of decision-making, the answers will be the same.