Major fossil fuel reserves must be left
in the ground
Former Irish president & UN high commissioner Mary Robinson says governments must confront this harsh reality
if runaway emissions are not to destroy the climate
by Fiona Harvey
World governments must get used to the idea of leaving fossil fuel reserves in the ground unexploited and unburned, one of the world's most senior diplomats has said, ahead of the fifth landmark report on climate science just unveiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The former Irish president and UN high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, is to spearhead a new international push aimed at breaking the climate talks deadlock and silencing sceptics, with a group of senior diplomats and politicians from around the world.
Climate sceptics are "not based in reality" and parts of the business community are "trying to cloud and distort the science", she said, adding that strong political leadership was needed to counter them.
Robinson says that governments would have to confront the harsh reality that much of their fossil fuel reserves, and accompanying economic value, would have to be left behind if runaway emissions are not to threaten the climate:
"There is a global limit on a safe level of emissions. That means major fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground. That has huge implications for economic and social development."
It would mean creating incentives for countries to look at other resources, as well as carbon pricing to penalise fossil fuel use, and most of all "political certainty" coming from global leaders.
She said it was also vital that developing countries should not be put at a disadvantage by this process, as many rich countries have had more opportunity to exploit their fossil resources and have benefited from them over decades:
"It must be managed in a fair way. Developing countries must not bear all the burden. We need a robust and fair climate change agreement."
She acknowledged that some countries and many businesses, particularly those with fossil fuel interests, would be hostile to the proposal. The current economic value of the resources left unused – without taking into account their effects on the climate – is likely to run into hundreds of billions of pounds.
"We are already talking to the business community that wants change, but there is obviously a business community that is trying to cloud and distort the science."
She said going for green growth instead of fossil fuels could create jobs and prosperity, as well as improving health and avoiding the danger that the ravages of global warming could destroy the gains made in lifting developing countries out of poverty.
Robinson called for strong messages by world political leaders on tackling global warming, which she said were needed to combat the growing chorus of climate sceptics, emboldened by media coverage ahead of the IPCC report:
"The best way to counter the sceptics is to have strong political leadership. The sceptics are not based in reality."
Robinson, who was the first woman to be president of Ireland, from 1990 to 1997, then United Nations high commissioner for human rights to 2002, and is a member of the Elders group of dignitaries that includes Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu – is widely respected for her role on the world stage, particularly in focusing attention on women's rights.
She hopes to copy the success of the Millennium Development Goals to forge an alliance among developing countries that would tie together aspirations for social and economic prosperity with the need to tackle climate change and maintain environmental protections.
Her backers, signatories to a declaration just published by the Mary Robinson Foundation, include a roll call of former developing country presidents, including Richard Lagos, former president of Chile; Luisa Dias Diogo, former prime minister of Mozambique; Botswana's ex-president Festus Mogae; Bharrat Jagdeo, former president of Guyana; Tuiloma Neroni Slade, secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum; and Jay Naidoo, a former minister in Nelson Mandela's government; as well as senior diplomats and labour organisations.
The Millennium Development Goals, after some struggles in the early stages, gained nearly universal acceptance from world governments, and although many will not be met by the 2015 deadline, they have provided a strong framework by which to measure progress on key indicators and galvanise support for development initiatives. If the same could be done for the climate, Robinson believes, and with new sustainable development goals to kick in beyond 2015, the processes could be mutually beneficial, joining to provide broader support for the changes needed.
Her foundation's declaration will be presented to the United Nations, meeting in New York this week for its general assembly, and also at Davos this winter, for the World Economic Forum attended by business leaders. In New York, the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon will invite world leaders to a summit next year that he hopes will galvanise leadership ahead of crunch negotiations in 2015 in Paris, the date governments have set as a deadline for drawing up a new global agreement on emissions and the climate. In a high-risk strategy, Ban hopes world leaders meeting ahead of the crucial final stages of the negotiations will enable their officials the following year to forge the global deal that has eluded previous talks.
Robinson said the world had a unique opportunity in the next two years, because the current millennium development goals expire in 2015, with replacement sustainable development goals in the offing, and the prospect of the Paris conference in the same year:
"This is a key point in time, such a very important year."
◊ Fiona Harvey is an Environment correspondent for The Guardian newspaper.
Publ. here 1.10.2013