Gloomy outlook forecast for the climate


The economic crisis may melt away in 2009, but it is safe to forecast that the issue of climate change will remain high on the agenda.

This content was published on January 3, 2009 minutes

However much they might like to look on the bright side, three Swiss experts who spoke to swissinfo about their hopes and fears, are concerned that action on climate change is not being taken quickly enough.

Professor Martin Beniston, a climate expert at Geneva University, hopes that the economic crisis will be over soon, before it wipes out the policies already adopted to protect the climate and to adapt to coming changes.

"If the economic situation settles down, people will start thinking again about long-term concerns. But for the moment we can only hope," he told swissinfo.

Suren Erkman, professor of industrial ecology at Lausanne University, sees no grounds for optimism, unless it is that people are becoming aware of the issue.

Even if measures were adopted immediately to counter climate change itself, their effects would come too late, Erkman says.

The name of the game is now adaptation: building higher bridges better able to withstand floodwaters, finding new ways to attract tourists when there is no snow, and so on.

"Even outside the areas directly involved, where the problem has been recognised for a long time, people are beginning to realise and to say openly that adaptation is going to be an important issue that we cannot shirk," he commented.

In our hands

In 2009 people living in Switzerland and France will have a new tool to help them calculate their own greenhouse gas emissions and get advice about how to cut them. It is an internet site, Le climat entre nos mains (The climate in our hands), being launched by journalist Jacques Mirenowicz.

"We won't have an adequate response to the challenge of climate change unless individual citizens start putting pressure on governments to give them the courage to take the necessary measures that will bring about a structural reduction of our emisssions," he explained.

He hopes his site will create a kind of personal dynamic which will then encourage people to act on a more political level.

Mirenowicz is looking foward to the Copenhagen conference in December 2009, to discuss the way forward when the Kyoto accords expire in 2012.

"This will be a chance to show some intelligence, in particular with regard to energy saving or the promotion of local renewable energy sources."

Clouds on the horizon

Beniston is less optimistic about Copenhagen, given the lack of progress made at the preparatory conference in the Polish city of Poznan in December.

"If Copenhagen fails, that won't mean the end but the introduction of the necessary mechanisms – economic, technological, political – will be delayed for several years. But it is a matter of urgency."

The longer we put it off, the more crucial such things as the rise in sea levels, water supply and food security will become, and they will affect the poorest among the world's population, he points out.

The latest data from the Arctic already indicate that the ice is melting faster than predicted.

Lack of vision

Mirenowicz is worried by the lack of political vision in the matter of climate change.

He is also concerned that the European presidency for the first half of 2009 has passed to the Czech Republic whose president, Vaclav Klaus, does not believe in climate change.

"We need an Al Gore in Europe, or charismatic political leaders capable of explaining just how relevant and intelligent it is to confront this challenge of a completely new type."

But he does not spare scientists from his censure either. He believes they "are too keen to take refuge in the neutrality of their work to avoid getting involved as citizens." He would like to see them calling for more effective measures to combat greenhouse gas emissions.

Erkman is highly critical of the "pseudo-solutions" being put forward to combat climate change, such as carbon trading, which Switzerland supports.

"It's a cheap way of buying a good conscience, but it solves nothing. Strictly speaking, nothing is being traded, it's simply a trick of words and a new kind of business."

Nor is he optimistic about the chances of reaching binding agreements in Copenhagen. Quite apart from persuading those involved, there are huge technical issues to be solved too, such as finding ways to evaluate and monitor the results achieved.

But he downplays the consequences of failure, since the impact even of Kyoto in any case leaves much to be desired.

"A lot of energy is being put in negotiations about the climate. And that is a good thing as far as it goes. But for the moment we are really not seeing any very spectacular results."

swissinfo, based on an article in French by Pierre-François Besson

Key facts

Temperatures in Switzerland have risen by an average of 0.57 degrees Celsius each decade since 1970. The increase is twice as much as the average for the northern hemisphere.

Carbon dioxide is one of the major gases responsible for the greenhouse effect and global warming. In Switzerland it represents around 80% of harmful emissions. Other gases include methane, nitrous oxide and hydrocarbons.

Despite ambitious emission targets, greenhouse gas emissions have actually risen by 0.4% in Switzerland since 1990.

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Switzerland and the Kyoto protocol

Kyoto, a 178-nation accord, is a 1997 annex to the 1992 UN climate treaty that requires 37 industrial nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of five per cent below 1990 levels by 2010.

The Swiss parliament ratified the Kyoto Protocol on climate change in 2003. Switzerland undertook to reduce its CO2 emissions to ten per cent less than 1990 levels by 2010.

Despite ambitious emission targets, greenhouse gas emissions have actually risen by 0.4% in Switzerland since 1990.

A CO2 law came into force in 2000 to ensure that the Kyoto target was achieved. About a thousand enterprises have taken voluntary measures to reduce their emissions.

But it became clear by 2005 that these measures were not sufficient. It is proving difficult, however, to agree on how to strengthen them.

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