The Choice Is Ours

The following is an excerpt from Planet B Magazine, which focuses on the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development that begins next week.

The "Future We Want" is the title of the negotiating text we have come here to complete. Since it was first made public in January, the draft has swollen to over 200 pages. Challenges to be considered have been identified: over a billion people live in poverty, food and water are becoming increasingly scarce, and two-thirds of the earth's ecosystems are in decline, to name a few. Governments, civil society, and other stakeholders have weighed in. Text has been proposed, debated, amended, accepted, and struck.

Yet the product of those months of deliberations and analysis ("The Future We Want") barely mentions the biggest humanitarian and environmental crisis of our time by name.

That climate change is not spoken more explicitly -- instead we refer to it implicitly, as a kind of silent motivation for "low-carbon development" and building a "green economy" -- I do not regard as an achievement of political communications, but rather a failure of political will.

As leaders we have a responsibility to fully articulate the risks our people face. If the politics are not favorable to speaking truthfully, then clearly we must devote more energy to changing the politics.

The fact is we cannot achieve fair and sustainable development unless we dramatically reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. Until we do, famines will grow increasingly frequent and intense, droughts will become more severe and widespread, and the world's rainforests and coral reefs, which support the livelihoods of billions of people, will continue to disappear. That is a reality we won't be able to disguise for long -- no matter how clever our rhetoric.

We must begin this summit therefore by acknowledging our failure to deliver on the promises made here in 1992 and work to apply the lessons we have learned. First and foremost that means ensuring legally binding commitments to tackle climate change. This is particularly important because the U.N. climate talks last year in Durban, South Africa failed to deliver the level of action necessary to prevent runaway global warming.

Keep in mind, in the 20 years since over 100 world leaders met here and resolved to lower greenhouse gases, emissions have soared to their highest level on record -- and so have global temperatures. The past 12 years alone included the 10 hottest ones in recorded history.

The consequence, of course, has been a relentless onslaught of severe weather and associated human catastrophes. In 2010, tens of millions of people were impacted by a devastating heat wave in Russia and a tragic flood in Pakistan. Last year we witnessed a heartbreaking famine on the Horn of Africa. If you live in New York, you will have noticed that we scarcely had a winter this year. No continent or country is immune to the impacts of climate change.

For many of the world's island and coastal communities, climate change has grown into an existential threat. Kiribati and the Maldives have already lost some of their islands to rising seas and more territory loss has been reported in the Pacific and Caribbean. Shoreline erosion and flooding has caused major damage to roads, public utilities and homes. Saltwater intrusion has degraded agricultural lands and freshwater supplies. Tackling climate change, in other words, cannot be separated from sustainable development.

What's more, the relentless rise in emissions are turning the oceans more acidic, threatening microscopic organisms that form the basis of the marine food chain and eroding coral reefs that are essential habitats for the world's commercial fisheries. It would be a tragic irony if our failure to address emissions ultimately undermines other gains we make here in ocean conservation.

Given the stakes, we cannot afford to ignore the overarching problem of the emissions gap, here or in any discussions that involve international environmental or development policy.

In the vocabulary of climate science, carbon dioxide emissions are measured in gigatonnes, Gt for short. One gigatonne -- a billion metric tons -- is roughly equivalent to the annual emissions from 200 coal-fired power plants or about 200 million passenger vehicles, which gives you a sense of the scale of the challenge.

In 2010, total emissions worldwide exceeded 48 Gt and they are on track to hit 56 Gt in 2020. But the latest research shows that annual emissions must drop below 44 Gt in 2020, and decline steeply thereafter to avoid warming of more than 2.0 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

This says nothing of keeping the global temperature well below the 1.5 degree Celsius mark needed to give us a realistic chance of avoiding an even more devastating rise in sea level and other unthinkable calamities.

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a coalition of 43 vulnerable island nations from around the world, has submitted a workplan to achieve urgent emissions cuts pursuant to the agreement reached in Durban. The proposals, some of which are outlined below, are based on the latest economic and scientific research and can be accomplished quickly and affordably.

For example, studies have shown that the global economic downturn has made cutting carbon pollution considerably less expensive than previously estimated. In light of these savings, governments should increase their pledges accordingly.

Research has shown that simply increasing the world's energy mix from the current 10 percent renewable to 15 percent would get us about half the emissions cuts we need. Jumping to 20 percent would get us all the way there.

Another way to slash emissions is simply to waste less energy. Study after study has shown that making automobiles, buildings, appliances, and energy grids operate more efficiently produces remarkable savings not only in emissions, but also money.

The developed world must take the lead in this effort by implementing the solutions that are so readily available and provide the resources and technology needed to build low-carbon development pathways in the developing world. There is simply no other way to achieve the necessary cuts.

Our plan also calls for an end to the lavish production subsidies enjoyed by the fossil fuel industry. This is no time to be subsidizing an energy source that is responsible for causing so much damage.

If you look at our proposal at you will find a schedule of workshops where countries can discuss how they can take advantage of these and other opportunities to cut emissions, including a request for a ministerial meeting in New York later this year. It seems reasonable to me for the world's environment ministers to get together and take stock of where we are and where we need to be on a matter of such grave importance.

Of course, much harm has already been done by climate change, and I'm afraid much more is still to come. To that end, we have developed a "loss and damage" proposal that would compensate vulnerable countries for the impacts they have already suffered and insure their property against future harm related to climate change. It would work much like insurance plans commonly found in the developed world that help communities rebuild after floods and storms.

The "Future We Want" is an appropriate slogan for our work. It implies that we have a choice to make here. We can choose to build a global economy that is fair and sustainable or we can continue on a path we know can only end in tragedy. The time has come to decide.

Ambassador Marlene Moses is the Permanent Representative to the United Nations for the Republic of Nauru and Chairs the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).