Andrew Hammond

Nations' climate laws key to global pact

Many nations are concluding that it is in their national interest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and better prepare for the impact of climate change, which can cause disasters such as flooding.
Many nations are concluding that it is in their national interest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and better prepare for the impact of climate change, which can cause disasters such as flooding.AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The annual United Nations climate summit of 194 nations finally finished in overtime on Sunday.

The modest agreement reached averted the talks' collapse and keeps the process alive.

However, while a deal was concluded, including agreement for the first time that all countries (not just developed states) must cut greenhouse gas emissions, many of the hard issues have been deferred.

With the prospects for a comprehensive, global treaty carrying the required ambition remaining uncertain in 2015, there is growing consensus that a better and faster response to climate change is badly needed.

This is especially so when the science and physical impacts of global warming are telling us that the urgency to act is increasing. In the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, "our collective action (still) does not match our common responsibilities".

To be sure, formal international negotiations, especially the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) process, remain vital. But what is no longer good enough is the creeping forward at what some perceive as a snail's pace, compared to what is required.

UNFCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres asserted that the time for "incremental change" is over, and that national and sub-national government policies are key to the accelerated response to climate change that is needed. As is increasingly recognised, implementing such frameworks will bolster the political conditions for a comprehensive global agreement in 2015 to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol.

Unlike talks at the international level, domestic climate change legislation and regulation is advancing at a rapid pace. Indeed, since Kyoto was negotiated in 1997, almost 500 domestic climate laws have been passed across the world covering almost 90 per cent of global greenhouse emissions.

This is particularly the case in developing countries, which are expected to power global growth in coming decades. Many are concluding that it is in their national interest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and better prepare for the impact of climate change.

This is a crucial, and under-appreciated, change in the centre of gravity of the climate change debate. And it mirrors a broader crossroads in international relations, with continuing economic uncertainty in much of the developed world being counterpoised with a shift of power to emerging economies.

In 2013 alone, as documented in a study released earlier this year by the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics, there was substantive legislative progress in almost 10 countries and positive advances in around 20 others.

In the Asia-Pacific, China published its National Adaptation Plan and made progress in drafting its national climate change law; Indonesia extended its forest moratorium; Kazakhstan introduced a pilot emissions trading scheme; and Micronesia passed its Climate Change Act.

In the Middle East and North Africa, Jordan passed its National Climate Change Policy; and the United Arab Emirates launched a mandatory Energy Efficiency Standardisation and Labelling Scheme. In the Americas, Bolivia passed its Framework Law on Mother Earth and Integral Development to Live Well; El Salvador adopted a National Climate Change Strategy while Costa Rica has approved a General Law on Climate Change.

This national action is triggered by an increased understanding of risks associated with climate change, and the significant co-benefits of taking action. Those co-benefits include increased resource efficiency, with its associated lower costs and increased competitiveness; stronger energy security through diversifying away from the insecure supply of price-volatile fossil fuels; improved air quality through reducing use of coal and electrifying transport; and securing early-mover advantage in the green technologies of tomorrow.

Despite this sea change, there remains a significant gap between the cumulative level of ambition of national action and that required to limit global average temperature rise to the agreed UN limit of 2 deg C above pre-industrial levels, the level many scientists say must not be breached if we are to avoid the worst risks of climate change.

If the pace of national action is maintained, the gap will close. Moreover, the domestic frameworks now being put in place to measure, report and verify emissions are a prerequisite for a comprehensive international treaty. Indeed, it is these domestic advances that will, ultimately, help enable the political conditions for a comprehensive international agreement to be reached in 2015.

As the difficult negotiations continue in coming months, a key danger is that some countries might lower their long-term ambition.

At a time when the climate change debate is undergoing profound change, this would be ill-timed. Indeed, now is exactly the right time for countries to invest more in climate diplomacy and practical international cooperation, to help expedite a comprehensive global treaty in 2015.

The writer is an associate at LSE Ideas at the London School of Economics, and was formerly a British government special adviser.