Opinions - 15.12.2011 - 00:00 

Climate protection needs role models

How can countries come to the understanding that climate protection and economic vitality are not contradictory? An op-ed article by Rolf Wüstenhagen on the UN Climate Change Conference in Durban 2011.
Source: HSG Newsroom


14 December 2011. Do you have children? In that case, the result of the climate change summit in Durban should not have surprised you any more than me. If I want my seven-year-old daughter to do something good – like turn off the light when leaving the room – I have three options: reward, punishment and reason. The international community of states faces similar choices with regard to the increasing CO2 emissions of many countries.

Reward, punishment or reason?

The Durban gathering took a step forward in terms of reward: a Green Climate Fund to support climate-protecting investments in developing countries. For China and the US, the two largest CO2 emitters, this step isn’t relevant. What about the second option, punishment? Credible sanctions are a regular part of global practical politics from Iraq to Libya to Syria. But who would seriously try to drive the world’s most powerful countries to their knees economically or militarily to rescue the climate?

So that leaves the reason option. for this approach to bear fruit in global climate politics a change of thinking is required. So far, the prevalent belief is that there is a positive correlation between economic vitality and CO2 emissions. Those who believe that climate protection and economic success are contradicting policies – "either I pollute less or I am successful." From that perspective, it is no surprise that countries like India and the US are reasonably cooperative but show little enthusiasm for effective climate protection. A little sacrifice for the global common good is okay, but not too much, please.

New thinking on climate protection

A fundamentally different view of things emerges if one starts out from a decoupling of prosperity and CO2 emissions or even goes so far as to see a negative correlation. There were signs in Durban of this new thinking. China’s arguments were more nuanced than in the past and a new alliance of Europeans and 100 developing countries formed. For those countries that are home to world’s leading manufacturers of solar cells and wind turbines, like China and some European countries, global climate protection means better export opportunities for their domestic industry. Conversely, the old assumption of a positive relationship between emissions and prosperity sounds hollow for countries in danger of losing the natural foundations for economic activity because of climate change like Bangladesh and Pacific island states. The progress – albeit minor – in the international climate discussion in Durban shows that a critical mass of decision makers is starting to think differently.

The power of the good example

How can more countries come to the understanding that climate protection and economic vitality are not contradictory but that, indeed, one is virtually the prerequisite for the other? At this point, a fourth option comes into play – the virtue of the good role model. Sticking with the example I began with: I would have little credibility with my daughter if I myself notoriously left the light on and expected the opposite from her. When Swiss representative Doris Leuthard travels to Durban knowing she brings a consistent reorientation of domestic energy politics toward the environmentally friendly options of efficient and renewable energies, she arrives with high credibility. On the other hand, if she demands more commitment to climate protection of threshold countries while Switzerland is in danger of failing to meet climate aims because of the unchecked increase of CO2 emissions in transport, it is more difficult to see the virtue of the role model.

The positive message from Durban is a growing awareness that the global challenge of climate protection concerns us all. To find effective solutions in the future, one has to realize that climate protection and economic success go hand in hand. Nothing is as convincing as countries which set an example of environmentally friendly prosperity. In Switzerland, it is in our hands – for us and for our children.

Picture: Photocase / tingeltin