From Durban to Rio: Taking action on clean energy & global warming at the Earth Summit 2012 in Rio

The global warming negotiations in Durban made important progress, but much more work lies ahead to address global warming. Countries have committed to action and are beginning to act at home. This is critical as the planet and humanity doesn’t care about promises that fail to lead to action. Their action to date is vital, but insufficient. And we are running out of time. Countries have a chance in five months – at the Earth Summit 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – to take additional action that will both reduce their global warming pollution and help put their economies on a more sustainable path.   

The U.N. has just released a “zero draft” of a document that world leaders will agree to at the Earth Summit. As my colleague noted, Rio+20 must be about much more than just another document.  The next Earth Summit needs to stimulate real accountable actions that put humanity on a more sustainable path.  There are plenty of actions that the document calls for, which could lead to real specific commitments at Rio. Will countries show up empty-handed or will they come with new actions that translate the vague promises in the “zero draft” into results on-the-ground?   

Here is what the zero draft says about climate and low-carbon energy (in bold) and some specific examples of what countries and companies should do at the Earth Summit 2012 to ensure that this Summit is about more than just vague promises (in italics). 

Paragraph 42: “…agree to gradually eliminate subsidies that have considerable negative effects on the environment and are incompatible with sustainable development…”

More countries must commit to phase-out fossil fuel subsidies and existing commitments need to be implemented by countries enshrining specific phase-out schedules in their national law.  In total, 53 countries have taken international commitments to reform and phase-out their fossil fuel subsidies including many of the world’s largest economies.  Such subsidies encourage the production and use of fossil-fossil fuels and thereby increase global warming pollution.  These commitments have yet to be met.

Paragraph 54: “…we request the international financial institutions [World Bank and International Monetary Fund] to review their programmatic strategies to ensure the provision of better support to developing countries for the implementation of sustainable development.”

Phase out lending by public and private financial institutions for energy projects with high GHG emissions and scale-up the financing for renewable sources of energy.  The World Bank must show a stronger commitment to move away from fossil fuel lending towards low carbon energy by adopting an energy strategy which locks in reform efforts.  While some export-credit agencies (e.g., the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation) have shown important shifts towards low carbon energy, those reforms must continue and more export credit agencies must join the move away from fossil investments that cause global warming.

Paragraph 70: “…improving energy efficiency at all levels with a view to doubling the rate of improvement by 2030…”

Phase out inefficient light bulbs through the establishment of minimum energy efficiency standards that reduce energy use of new bulbs by at least 65%.  Switching from inefficient incandescent lights to more efficient light bulbs such as compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) would achieve annual CO2 reductions of 246 million tons – equal to the emissions of 61 million mid size cars.  Some countries have started to act, but more need to join the efforts to save their consumers money and reduce global warming pollution caused by inefficient lighting.

Even greater energy efficiency improvements is both necessary and possible so the efficiency goals outlined in the zero draft should be strengthened. 

Paragraph 70: “…doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030…”

Scale-up renewable electricity use by countries undertaking specific policies in order to more than triple the amount of wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal power that is used throughout the world.  At least 119 countries had some type of national policy target or renewable support policy in 2010.  In fact, according to the International Energy Agency’s new projections wind, solar, and geothermal electricity generation will grow from 2% of total electricity production in 2009 to 5% in 2020 under current policies.  So doing even more should be well within reach.  And eliminating fossil subsidies could help with this effort as fossil fuels receive 500% more in the way of subsidies than clean energy.

Paragraph 88: “We reaffirm that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time…”

Phase down HFCs and other “super greenhouse gases” by governments adopting new commitments covering these super greenhouse gases under the Montreal Protocol. As my colleague has discussed, the Montreal Protocol has provided huge climate side-benefits but those benefits are now being eroded by the rapid growth of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the “super greenhouse gases” that are coming into widespread use as replacements for their ozone-depleting predecessors. Unfortunately a few countries are holding back progress on getting agreement to phase-down these “super greenhouse gases”. 

Paragraph 90:We support policy frameworks and market instruments that effectively slow, halt and reverse deforestation and forest degradation…” 

Reduce deforestation emissions by key corporations committing to avoiding purchasing products that cause deforestation, such as soy or cattle from deforested lands in the Brazilian Amazon, palm oil from deforested agricultural land in Indonesia, or illegal wood and wood products throughout the world. More countries should also commit to adopt, implement, and enforce requirements that all imported wood and wood products come from legal sources.

Turning the zero draft into real energy and climate action in order to help put us on a more sustainable path.  These are just a couple of examples of the types of new actions that should be brought forth at the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio (Here are more suggestions that countries and companies should take at Rio.)  The key to the Summit will be whether leaders focus on action that they individually or collectively can implement now, or whether they’ll hide behind good sounding, but rather vague far-off promises.

As Richard Black at the BBC points out the Rio Summit is:  “a chance for world leaders to take a long view of where the global society is heading, and whether they're happy with that.”  That long-view must be more than just a 20 (or 100 page set of vague declarations).  Countries, companies and communities must come to the Earth Summit 2012 in Rio with clear commitments to address global warming, spur clean energy, and reduce inefficient energy use.

They have some of the right words – many of which have been said many times before – now can they bring forward the right actions?