Will Bonn Climate Talks Reflect a Dramatically Changed World?

06/06/2011 11:22 am ET | Updated Aug 06, 2011

Top climate negotiators have descended on Bonn's Hotel Maritim for the latest two-week installment of the international climate negotiations.

They last met In Bangkok in April, emerging from the talks battered and bruised but ultimately pleased with having compromised their way out from between the proverbial rock and a hard place. You can read a detailed account of where the climate negotiations stand, and what happened in Bangkok.

But suffice it to say, we are still a long way from where we need to be to effectively address the growing climate crisis.

2011-06-09-bonntrackers.jpgRobert van Waarden, GCCA

Whether negotiators will make significant progress in Bonn remains to be seen, but never before has both the opportunity and the threat been as stark as it is right now. Just since Bangkok three new potential game changers have emerged, for better or worse, which should spur negotiators to put aside their differences and find cooperative solutions:

1) First, the International Energy Agency (IEA) -- a conservative body if ever there was one, (established by the wealthy OECD countries to promote energy security) -- just issued a loud and shocking wake-up call: energy-related CO2 emissions in 2010 were the highest in history.

After a dip in 2009 due to the global financial crisis, emissions are estimated to have climbed to a record high, a 5% increase from the previous record year in 2008. To put this in perspective, this was the amount of emissions projected for 2020 to maintain a maximum of 2°C temperature rise -- the threshold above which scientists predict the most catastrophic impacts will take place (catastrophic for all of us, not just the climate victims currently affected). The recent discovery that growing food scarcity is directly linked to climate change in countries like Mexico (read today's New York Times article) is one example of the profound social, political, and environmental impacts of our collective inaction.

This is one instance in which being ahead of schedule is a very, very bad thing. It's like being on death row, and having your execution date suddenly moved forward from years to days. This information alone should be enough to light a fire under their backsides, but there's more.

2) The nuclear disaster at Fukushima has led to a massive re-evaluation of energy choices around the world. Germany has decided to phase out all nuclear power, and Switzerland is following suit. Italy's top appellate court has just ruled that a nuclear referendum will go ahead on June 12-13 which could result in a permanent ban.

Others such as China are revisiting nuclear growth plans for safety reasons, and active debates about nuclear safety are happening in the US, the UK and elsewhere. These debates represent both an opportunity and a threat: an unprecedented opportunity to initiate massive new renewable energy initiatives; and a threat that short-sighted thinking will lead to lost nuclear capacity being replaced by coal and other fossil fuels.

Suggesting we must choose between nuclear and fossil fuels brings to mind that old Woody Allen quip: "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." Fortunately, Woody, we have a third choice, and decisive action by international climate negotiators would tip the balance.

3) The IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources dispelled any remaining doubt about our ability to meet our growing energy demands while weaning ourselves from fossil fuels. According to the report, 80% of global energy generation could be powered by renewables by 2050, and renewables have the technical potential to provide more than 20 times the energy we use today.

This is not a pipe dream -- renewable energy capacity grew in 2009, even during the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression: wind by over 30%; grid-connected photovoltaics by over 50%; and solar water/heating by over 20%. But stepping up the pace to warp speed will only be possible if governments send the right signals to business, by putting the necessary policy incentives in place. These are exactly the kinds of discussions happening in Bonn over the next two weeks.

So here's my message to the climate negotiators assembled in Bonn: The stakes are getting higher, the speed of change is increasing, and the solutions are there for the taking. What are you waiting for?