As the most authoritative report to date on climate change is published, it is time for the world to get serious about curbing greenhouse gas emissions, argues Oliver Tickell. He calls on all nations to embrace a "Kyoto 2" framework, full of "bold measures" to prevent "severe and adverse consequences".
The Earth's average temperature will almost certainly rise by 1.8-4C (3.2-7.2F) during this century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report.
Fail to act at this decisive time and the Earth, its people and its whole panoply of life will face the most severe and adverse consequences
Thanks to "positive feedback" in the Earth's climate system, it could even rise by 6.4C (11.5F). Temperature rises even at the middle of this scale would mean catastrophe.
Hundreds of millions of people would be forced from their homes by sea level rises, storms, floods and drought. And our planet's biodiversity would face the greatest extinction since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago.
The situation is not beyond remedy. In 1997, the world took a significant step to controlling greenhouse gas emissions with the Kyoto Protocol.
Yet the main value of the Kyoto Protocol is symbolic: it shows that the world can act collectively to safeguard the Earth's future, and sets a precedent for future action.
Its effect on actually reducing global greenhouse gas emissions is uncertain, and appears to be small. The rise in global greenhouse gas emissions has continued on an even path since 1997, unperturbed by the Kyoto Protocol.
In any case, the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, and then what? I believe that a new climate agreement is needed which must go far beyond the existing Protocol in its scope and its ambitions.
It has to produce genuine global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Its core framework must encompass all countries, in a way that is efficient and equitable.
It must forge a new path for global development which moves away from fossil fuels. And it must address those impacts of climate change which are already inescapable, and which will disproportionately affect the countries least able to withstand them.
It is to meet these objectives that I have drafted a set of proposals under the name Kyoto 2, departing significantly from the ineffective framework of the existing Kyoto Protocol.
Key features include:
- impose a series of global caps on annual greenhouse gas production
- set aside the country-based approach, replacing it with a unified global approach
- control greenhouse gases at point of production, not of emission; in the case of fossil fuel emissions, control the production of the fuel itself as close as feasible to the mine or well-head, based on the global warming potential of the fuel in question when burnt
- sell greenhouse gas production "Rights" at a global auction open to all bidders
- limit the fossil fuel production of any company in any year to the level for which they have obtained Rights
- treat other industrial production of greenhouse gases in the same way, for example: carbon dioxide (CO2) from cement production; and surplus radiative impacts for aviation
- for avoidable diffuse greenhouse gas emissions such as methane and CO2 from forest burning, issue limited Rights to governments on a per capita of population basis
- credit Rights to companies who demonstrably destroy or safely bury greenhouse gases
- use the funds raised at the global auction to address both the causes and consequences of climate change
Taken as a whole, these measures offer a new approach which would achieve the necessary reductions in greenhouse gas production in a way that is economically efficient, fair and equitable. And the climate funds - which could easily reach $500bn-$1 trillion (£250-£500bn) per year - could be used in many positive ways, for example:
- establish a Climate Adaptation Fund to help the worst affected countries adapt to climate change
- finance programmes to reduce fossil fuel demand, aimed especially at poorer countries and populations
- pay "rent" to countries with natural biomes acting as carbon sinks and stores within their territories, such as forests and swamps, to maintain and expand those sinks and stores
- establish a Low Carbon Development Bank to support viable low-carbon energy developments
- fund low-carbon energy research, for example, into renewable generation technologies
- buy out fossil fuel deposits to prevent their exploitation, which will also give an economic return to countries losing revenue from fossil fuel sales
I do not pretend that it will be easy to put these or similar proposals in place. Fossil fuel producers, both countries and companies, would be faced with, in effect, a new tax.
A "greenhouse fund" would help offset transport emissions
However, there would also be upsides for them: a level global playing field ensuring fair competition among rival producers; greater certainty as to the future, essential for long term investment decisions; and the prolongation of their fossil fuel reserves' lifetime, thanks to a slower rate of production.
Opposition would also come from the rich countries now responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions.
Although their governments would not be bound by specific targets as at present, most of the money going into the "greenhouse fund" would ultimately derive from their economies.
Burning a barrel of oil produces about 0.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide, so a $20 (£10) price for Rights (per tonne of CO2) would put about $8 (£4) on a barrel of oil - or 5 US cents (2.5p) on a litre of petrol.
No doubt there would be complaints, but few could seriously argue that costs at that level are unaffordable. In any case, any system for controlling greenhouse gases will ultimately have to be financed mainly by the rich world, and those who produce most emissions.
These would be bold measures but the global threats we face deserve nothing less.
Fail to act at this decisive time and the Earth, its people and its whole panoply of life will face the most severe and adverse consequences - as the IPCC's latest report abundantly confirms.
Oliver Tickell is a freelance journalist and campaigner on the environment and health issues
The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website