The Mexican Parliament recently passed the General Law on Climate Change, a landmark piece of national environmental legislation. This month also saw the passage of far reaching legislation introducing emissions trading scheme in South Korea.
This is a truly significant move and comes at a time when the same country is also very close to approving a far-reaching REDD+ forestry law that will set a benchmark for international best practice.
The passage of Mexico and South Korea’s law (which in both instances were supported, significantly, on a cross-party basis) highlights the remarkable progress on climate change now being made globally. A critical mass of strategically significant – often emerging – economies have made landmark climate and energy-related legislation over the last year. These countries, including China, are advancing laws at a pace that contrasts sharply with the UN-brokered climate change talks that formally convene again in Qatar in late November.
This trend comes at a time of pivotal change in international relations with continuing economic downturn in the West being counterpoised with the increasingly rapid shift of power to emerging economies. Mirroring this structural shift is a fundamental repositioning of the centre of gravity of the global climate change debate towards domestic climate change legislation. This is nothing less than game changing.
As a recent study, by Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE) and the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics, documents:
- China is developing comprehensive climate change legislation and has included carbon targets in its latest Five Year Plan.
- South Africa’s government has released its climate change white paper, including a raft of measures such as renewable energy targets and a carbon tax.
- The Australian government’s Clean Energy Act puts Australia on a trajectory to reduce its emissions by 80% by 2050.
- Germany has outlined a radical new energy plan in response to the Fukushima disaster, including a massive increase in renewable energy investment.
- South Korea has passed legislation for an emissions trading scheme which is binding by 2015 and covers those facilities producing more than 25,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.
As in Mexico and South Korea, adoption of such landmark initiatives is — with a few notable exceptions which include Australia — largely cross-party. One key reason for this encouraging move towards political consensus is that many legislators increasingly recognise the positive co-benefits of climate change legislation. These range from greater resource efficiency and increased energy security to the reduction of air pollution.
All this, in turn, mirrors a crucial shift in the political debate on climate change. Until now, it has been largely framed by the narrative of sharing a global burden — with governments, naturally, trying to minimise their share.
Now, legislators increasingly view the issue as one of national self-interest, with each nation trying to maximise the benefits of climate change legislation. Indeed, those countries with strong national legislation are already attracting most inward investment on low-carbon technologies because there is greater business certainty rather than high regulatory risk.
Encouraging as this shift is, it is as yet insufficient to avoid dangerous climate change of greater than 2 degrees Celsius. Nonetheless, the national legal and policy frameworks to measure, report, verify and manage carbon that are now being created have the potential of significant tightening. This will be the more likely as governments experience the benefits of lower energy use, reduced costs, improved competitiveness, and greater energy security.
As this happens, the goal must be to translate such progress into a comprehensive, global deal by 2015 under the negotiations that began at Durban and are due to finish in 2015.
Such a deal will probably only be possible when even more countries are committed to taking action on climate change because it is to their advantage rather than out of perceived altruism. In other words, such a deal will reflect domestic political conditions not define them.
Given this outlook, a key danger is that some developed countries might lower their long-term ambition and harden their stances in dealing with others in the UN discussions. At a time when the climate change debate is undergoing such profound change, this would be particularly counter-productive. The UN negotiations should be used as the forum for countries to invest more in climate diplomacy and practical international cooperation. This will help to expedite the creation of conditions within nations, both developed and developing, that will enable them to agree a comprehensive global treaty by 2015. Countries that have found it hard to agree to international action are now outdoing their commitments in domestic legislation. Having taken those steps at home they will find it much easier to commit to a global agreement which confirms the decisions they have already taken of their sovereign free will. A curmudgeonly response from the developed world is now the biggest threat to the Kyoto process.
Rt Hon John Gummer, Lord Deben, is President of Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE) and former UK Secretary of State for the Environment, and Rt Hon John Prescott, Lord Prescott, is a Member of GLOBE, and former UK Deputy Prime Minister and Europe’s Lead Negotiator at Kyoto.