Operationalising Article 2 of the UNFCCC

Ulka Kelkar          ulkak@teri.res.in

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the cornerstone of international efforts to address climate change. Its ultimate objective, as stated in Article 2, is “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”  Although such a level is not defined directly in the UNFCCC, it is characterized as being achieved “within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner”. 

How much of a change in climate is dangerous?  How much of a change is safe? “Dangerous climate change” has become a topical issue for scientific analysis and policy debate.  Media coverage of erratic weather patterns and extreme events has helped make climate change a concern for the general public.  This issue is also important for the second round of negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol, beginning in 2005.  However, defining an acceptable or unacceptable concentration of greenhouse gases involves value judgements.  It requires informed dialogue among scientists, policy-makers, and stakeholders from different parts of the world.

This was the goal behind HOT (Helping Operationalize Article 2 of the UNFCCC), a science-based policy dialogue initiated by IVM (Institute for Environmental Studies, The Netherlands) with support from the Dutch Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment.  TERI participated in the first phase of the HOT initiative, which was a collaborative effort of seven research institutes from Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  As a step towards helping elicit the views of various stakeholders, TERI undertook a regional survey of representatives from the government, research institutes, NGOs, business, and media on their understanding of how we should define a dangerous climate change.  This was followed by an international workshop titled “HOT: Asian regional dialogue”, organized by TERI in New Delhi during 30 July-1 August 2003. Parallel dialogues on the same subject were organized in Africa, Latin America and Europe by TERI’s partner research institutes—ENDA (Environment and Development Action in the Third World), Senegal; COPPE/Climate Centre at the University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; IVM (Institute for Environmental Studies), The Netherlands; RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment), The Netherlands; and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia, UK.

The workshop focussed on the subject of interpretation of the Article 2 conditions, and assessing these conditions at global, regional, and local scales.  Participants discussed the process of operationalizing Article 2 by involving relevant stakeholders – particularly the most vulnerable communities – and by influencing decision-makers. They also highlighted the importance of integrating climate change policies with the development framework of a nation, and debated issues of fairness between developed and developing countries with regard to the distribution of greenhouse gas mitigation, and adaptation costs.

One way of interpreting Article 2 is by developing physical indicators that are proxies for the desired level of GHG concentrations, e.g. stabilization of temperature or rate of change of temperature, balancing emissions and sinks, etc.  However, defining “dangerous interference” is easier in terms of, for example, disrupted water cycle and food production or adaptation of natural ecosystems.  Clearly, climate-induced indicators, like the break-up of the West Antarctic ice sheet, are more credible for policy-makers and the general public.

But, physical indicators cannot adequately capture the fact that poor and affluent countries are affected differently by the same level of climate change and therefore will not share the same meaning of “dangerous”.  Neither can purely physical indicators focus attention on the impacts on the most vulnerable communities. Socio-economic or “human” indicators of Article 2 conditions can be defined in terms of reduced development capacity, decrease in human welfare, impacts on health, etc.

Indicators can also be designed in terms of vulnerability rather than impacts per se by focusing on the poorest and most vulnerable communities.        Rather than using expert opinion to generate indicators, we need to talk to people who will be most affected, and gather information from them to determine thresholds (e.g. food production, mangrove ecosystems, glacier retreat, etc).

In fact, the process of defining indicators of Article 2 conditions is as important as the indicators themselves.  What are our development priorities?  Should only one of the Article 2 conditions be used, or should there be a balance among them, thereby reflecting the three aspects of sustainable development?  The process of operationalizing Article 2 should involve all relevant stakeholders, particularly the most vulnerable communities. To ensure informed debate, however, there is a need to generate awareness among stakeholders about potential impacts and their roles. This is also the route to influence decision makers, since they are guided by public perception. In linking science and policy, however, we should realize that economic development is the top priority in real life, while climate change remains a remote concern. Integrating climate change policy with the development framework is the key, and any society will define Article 2 in the context of its own sustainable development priorities.  q 

The author is a Research Associate, with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi.

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