'Time running out for climate change pact'

Experts call for earnest and immediate action to avert catastrophes

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ABU DHABI // Catastrophic rises in sea level, heatwaves, droughts and more frequent extreme weather - if the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided, carbon emissions must peak by 2020, scientists warn.

But emissions are rising. In Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, The National spoke to prominent officials and experts, all of whom agreed the world had only a matter of years to act.

Expanding renewable energy projects, removing subsidies for fossil fuels and taxing polluters are some of the urgent steps governments must take, they said.

Governments have until 2015 to sign a new global deal on climate to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which has relatively modest emissions reduction targets and expires in 2020.

But what is now on the negotiating table "takes us 60 per cent on the way to the 2°C maximum temperature rise target", said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Scientists warn that warming of more than 2°C will have catastrophic consequences for the planet, but Ms Figueres said there was still time to negotiate a global deal that could prevent this.

"I do think it is possible but I also do not want to underestimate the amount of work that needs to be done, the amount of trust-building, the amount of actual measures and actions on the ground," she said.

"We need more legislation, more domestic legislation, we need more mitigation, more investment in renewables and energy efficiency … and all of these things together will allow the political space for a 2015 agreement."

Connie Hedegaard, the European Union commissioner for climate action, said it was important governments discuss as soon as possible "what we know will be controversial issues".

"People should not think that because we have three years, we have plenty of time. It is very important to start the more political discussions now," Ms Hedegaard said.

The biggest question is how to allocate responsibility for reducing emissions between industrialised and developing countries.

The European Union insists that countries such as China, which are still developing but have already become large net emitters, join the new treaty with legally binding measures.

"More will have to commit and we have to understand that we live in a mutually-interdependent world," Ms Hedegaard said.

"Rich countries will have to do more than poor countries but all of us will have to pursue more sustainable development paths.

"The world knows what to do."

She was referring to measures such as phasing out harmful refrigerants, reducing the carbon footprint of aviation and shipping, and cutting fossil fuel subsidies.

"You do not have to wait for an international agreement to tell you to do this. The business cases are already there."

Fossil fuel subsidies reached US$523 billion (Dh1.92 trillion) last year, said Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency.

Subsidies for renewable energy were $88bn in 2011, Ms van der Hoeven said.

"At this moment, fossil-fuel subsidies really do encourage wasteful consumption," she said.

"If you change that and use that money, for instance, for renewables, then there would be another reason and condition to speed up the deployment of renewables."

Besides removing subsidies, governments also need to put a price on carbon pollution, she said.

Ms Figueres expressed a similar opinion.

"Every study says that pricing carbon, and there are many different ways to price carbon, does need to occur in one way or another because that is the way a powerful signal is going to be sent to the private sector and to the investment community," she said.

Putting a price on carbon pollution can include imposing taxes on fossil fuels.

Ultimately, a fundamental change is needed in how the climate problem and its solutions are perceived, said activist Mark Kenber, chief executive of The Climate Group.

"The one thing to my mind that needs to change in the next three years is the way we think and talk about climate change," he said.

"If the negotiations continue to be about who pays, how we share the cost, then we will inevitably have a race to the bottom because everybody wants to pay as little as possible.

"In a very desperate way, we will eventually have climate policy. Let us not wait for climate change to be so destructive that we do it as a defence mechanism.

"The important thing, I think, is to get there now because we still have an opportunity to do it in a way that drives prosperity and well-being."