Can a monster typhoon bring new energy to UN climate talks?

Development Policy18 Nov 2013Niccolo Sarno

The devastating typhoon which killed thousands of people in the Philippines on November 9-10 is a stark reminder that extraordinary weather events are happening with increasing frequency and that climate change is causing a planetary emergency.

Consequently, one would hope that world governments take real and immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during their November 11-22 United Nations climate change (UNFCCC) talks in Warsaw, Poland.

In an emotional plea on the opening day of the UN climate summit in Warsaw, Yeb Sano, lead negotiator for the Philippines, called for urgent action to prevent a repeat of the devastating storm that hit parts of his country just hours before the UN talks started.

He also commenced a voluntary ‘fast for the climate’, saying he would voluntarily refrain from eating food during these UN talks “until a meaningful outcome is in sight.” Several people showed their solidarity by joining him in his fast.

Unfortunately, most observers expect nothing substantial from the talks this year – besides an agreement to keep on talking – which is all that the past ten years of talks have yielded.

This inaction flies in the face of the poorest people in developing countries, because it is the poorest and most vulnerable people who are most affected by the impacts of climate change.

Many observers point their finger at the obstructive role played by big business at the negotiations.

For instance, a new report released at the start of the talks by Corporate Europe Observatory and the Transnational Institute states that vast numbers of industry and business lobbyists influence the talks, “promoting their preferred ‘solution’ to tackling climate change – solutions which protect their business interests, provide them with new opportunities to profit and most importantly of all, allow them to continue polluting the climate and destroying the environment.”

In September 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed beyond all reasonable doubt that climate change is caused by human-induced greenhouse gas emissions and that it poses a severe and immediate threat to human well-being, including food production and human security.

The bulk of global greenhouse gas emissions is caused by our energy system, which is unsustainable, unjust, and harming communities and the environment.

The destructive energy system on which the world currently relies is driving climate change and many social and environmental problems and conflicts, for instance land-grabbing, pollution, deforestation and the destruction of ecosystems.

Yet many civil society organisations believe that it is still possible to build a climate-safe, just and sustainable energy system which ensures the basic right to energy for everyone and respects the rights and different ways of life of people around the world.

In order to realise such a system, we need to ask ourselves: what are the main problems with the current energy system?

The biggest problems with the current energy system are its role in driving climate change and the destructive environmental and social impacts of exploitation of the main current energy sources.

Also very problematic are the vast inequalities that exist in energy consumption and access, with a small number of people and industries consuming vast quantities of the world’s energy while billions of people can barely afford energy to meet their basic needs or have no access to energy at all.

Shockingly, 1.3 billion people – or one fifth of the world’s population – do not have access to electricity.

The main fossil fuel-based energy sources on which the world is currently reliant – oil, gas and coal – have major and destructive consequences for people and the climate.

57 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are a result of CO2 released by fossil fuel use.

But other energy sources that are misleadingly put forward as ‘clean’ alternatives, such as nuclear power, industrial agrofuels and biomass, mega hydroelectric dams and waste- to-energy incineration, also have destructive consequences for people, the environment and the climate.

Isn’t it ironic that many consider nuclear energy ‘clean’ and safe after the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters ? Nuclear waste needs to be stored safely for one million years, until radioactivity is reduced to the level of natural uranium, and safe storage is impossible.

Quite obviously, we need to end new destructive energy projects and phase out existing destructive energy sources, while ensuring that the rights of affected communities and workers are respected and that their needs are provided for during the transition.

We also urgently need to reduce energy dependence so that people don’t need much energy to meet their basic needs and live a good life.

Most of all, in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to invest in locally-appropriate, climate-safe, affordable and low impact energy for all. While we transition away from high carbon energy sources like fossil fuels and agrofuels, we must rapidly expand renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and tidal technology.

In its latest report, Friends of the Earth International recommends the reduction of our energy dependence and address the excessive energy consumption of the wealthy in the global North who consume most of the world’s energy-intensive products.

Some facts speak for themselves: in the US and Canada energy consumption per capita is roughly twice that in Europe or Japan, more than ten times that in China, nearly 20 times that in India, and about 50 times as high as in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

Unfortunately, the injustices of our current energy system are not on the agenda of world governments at their UN climate talks this year, and not even a monster typhoon and thousands of deaths seem to be able to change that.

It is about time for our governments to follow the lead of Yeb Sano and start to seriously address the climate crisis.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not those of Friends of the Earth International.