Money talks, so let it speak loudly about climate change

Yes, the haze is back.

The lessons regarding the masks and PM2.5 particles become an annual revision as we monitor the PSI levels like the stock market. But even without the continued presence of the seasonal haze, our minds should be focused on climate change.

Soon, about 200 countries will convene in Paris to broker a first-of-its-kind legally binding agreement to control greenhouse gas emissions. The meeting will be the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, named COP21 for short. It starts on Friday and ends on Dec 11.

And it's about time, following recent remarks by heads of state including United States President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had swayed like-minded corporations to invest more in tackling global warming. The chief executives of Total, Britain's BP, Italy's Eni, Norway's Statoil, Spain's Repsol, Saudi Aramco and Mexico's Pemex have recently come out to collaborate in limiting gas flaring from refineries, and agreed to call again for a global pricing system for carbon.

With the two biggest players - the US and China - in broad agreement for the first time, any debates that are to dominate the Paris talks should not only be about reduction in emissions, but also about financing.

Yes, let money talk loudly at the conference.

First, focus on ironing out financial aid deals to help developing nations reduce their emissions and adapt to the travails of climate change. This will enable them to break out of the circle to invest in clean technology.

Compensate equitably for damage caused by extreme weather and provide private funding for renewable energy use. An insurance fund to protect poor farmers from the economic consequences of crop failure will ensure that the momentum set up from the agreement will not dwindle and be slowed down by any negative drive from its own force.

Second, the conference should establish provisions for a periodic cycle of regular review under which countries must bring forward progressively tighter emissions reductions and ramp up actions. For instance, a country with targets out till 2030 should revise them earlier to 2020.

Setting up rigorous standards on measurement, reporting and verification will increase the level of confidence countries have in one another. And to bolster these targets, more effort should be made to bring down emissions outside the United Nations (UN) process by engaging non-state parties such as cities, local governments and businesses.

A clear long-term vision needs to be mapped out during this summit to ensure that businesses and investors are sent clear signals about the direction of the global economy beyond 2030.

As the coal boom passes its peak and draws to a close, alternative energy sources such as natural gas and renewal energy ought to be the way forward. Renewable energy has become more economically competitive with the cost of solar energy down by almost 80 per cent over the last decade. The general vision should be one that launches the transformation of our economies and societies into one of resilient low carbon.

This means having a global carbon-pricing mechanism. A cap- and-trade system will be a cost- effective way for businesses to shift away from fossil fuels, thereby encouraging them to find the cheapest way to cut emissions while incentivising innovation. This strategy is not entirely new as emissions trading was an integral part of the Kyoto global warming treaty that was approved in 1997.

Many national pledges thus far have been conservative, with several of them having conditional pledges based upon the provision of financial aid. This also reflects caution about an untried Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) process.

With the two biggest players - US and China - in broad agreement for the first time, any debates that are to dominate the Paris talks should not only be about reduction in emissions but also about financing. Yes, let money talk loudly at the conference.

INDCs reflect each country's ambition of reducing emissions in preparation for a Paris agreement, taking into account its domestic priorities, circumstances and capabilities. Some countries have addressed how they will adapt to the impact of climate change and what support they need from other nations to adopt low-carbon pathways and to enhance climate resilience. Ambitions seem to be dented as countries have had to make pledges in advance and without the knowledge of other countries' pledges.

The Paris agreement should make provisions for legal sanctions or formal enforcement procedures that can be used against countries which renege on their commitments. The agreement's model should shift from one that adopts a bottom-up approach with no compulsory targets and sanctions, to a top-down approach with provisions for compliance and review, as this will provide more teeth towards the fight against climate change and ensure that polluters pay the price for their climate crimes.

The UN's plan for world governments to adopt a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will build upon the Millennium Development Goals that were supposed to be achieved by this year, will address issues such as access to clean water, sanitation and energy, gender equality, education and health.

These SDGs will have a profound effect on whether the world can meet its climate-change targets that allow poor countries to lift their citizens out of poverty while not breaking climate thresholds.

The fight against climate change will not end in Paris. It will not end with our generation. It is a long-term struggle and our efforts thus far are clearly insufficient. But if nations can meet and agree on equitable goals on the climate and economic development in the spirit of cooperation and the principle of shared and differentiated responsibilities, this might just yet be another small step for humanity, and a giant leap for humankind.

  • The writer is Head (Eco-Certifications) and Lead Environmental Engineer, Singapore Environment Council.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2015, with the headline 'Money talks, so let it speak loudly about climate change'. Print Edition | Subscribe