America & China give reasons for optimism on climate change

After decades of the USA and China preventing global agreement, they are finally making progress to combat climate change.

What do Xi Jinping and Barack Obama have in common? Climate change, of course. But perhaps not in the way you first thought. We’ve always known that the world’s biggest emitters could make the difference but now it looks like they might. Why? Because climate change isn’t good for business.

Today, the second in a series of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change is published and it paints a stark picture of the effects of climate change. The report predicts more frequent extreme weather events, significant declines in crop yields which could cause food price volatility and increased levels of hunger, and rising sea levels which threaten to submerge coastal areas. It points to an urgent need for an ambitious and binding global strategy on climate action.

In Paris, next December, the 21st session of the UNFCCC climate conference (COP21) is the moment when such an agreement could be made. But three crucial components need to come together to make it happen. It’s time for political leadership at global and national level, for a strong economic case to be made and for campaigners and politicians alike to harness public opinion.

Let’s get real. There are reasons for pessimism. At the European level, political leadership has faltered, while other global climate action leaders have also reversed. The disaster at Fukushima made Japan turn back the clock and Australia’s new government have politically backtracked.

But there are also reasons for optimism. The world’s biggest emitters, the US and China, are starting to change their ways. In the US, even though the divided Congress has refused to confront climate change, Obama has made a commitment to reducing emissions, which have fallen by nearly 8 per cent between 2007 and 2011. The shale gas revolution has displaced coal, cutting emissions significantly.

China has upped its game and has committed to reducing carbon intensity per unit of GDP. It has spent $10 billion on wind farms and almost $13 billion on nuclear power, in 2012 alone. Given these recent advancements, China and the US now have an opportunity to lead the momentum towards Paris 2015.

What China and the US do at home sets the context for how they behave abroad. As UN climate chief Christiana Figueres says: “domestic legislation is critical because it is the linchpin between action on the ground and the international agreement”.

The economic case for challenging climate change is crucial. Many businesses await strong political signals before undertaking costly long-term investments in green growth. Countries like Brazil, India and South Africa have the chance to skip the carbon-based stage of development and leap frog to a low carbon economy. If richer countries support preventative adaptation, it will avoid great costs in the long run.

But none of this can happen if the public aren’t engaged. A climate policy of and for a political elite is destined to fail. Encouragingly, more and more people think fighting climate change and creating jobs can go hand in hand. But there’s a lot more to do to convince them.

After decades of America and China preventing global agreement, their actions might now help to unlock commitments from others. The reasons for optimism on climate change are surprising but could be our best hope yet.

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