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Achim Steiner
UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UNEP

Twelve months after the high-profile United Nations climate convention meeting in Copenhagen, Governments meet once more in the Mexican city of Cancun to assess and to catalyse a response to the urgent challenge of climate change.

Some have been managing expectations down, but perhaps this is a moment to manage them up. This year has witnessed more than its fair share of extreme weather events — from the tragic floods in Pakistan to the record-breaking temperatures, smogs and peat bog fires in Russia — in line with the latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Indeed there is every indication that 2010 will join 1998 as the warmest year since records began.

So, the scientific data accumulates. But what about the international response? What will put us on track to limiting greenhouse gas emissions to an average of 44 gigatonness (Gt) of CO2-equivalent in 2020 — the level needed if we are to have a reasonable or 66 per cent chance of keeping global temperatures below 2 °C by 2050?

The pledges made and actions proposed by developed and developing countries at and after Copenhagen must be made good. The funds promised — for fast start and beyond — must be delivered. And the mechanisms needed — including for reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) — must be made operational.

UNEP, in partnership with leading climate modelling agencies has published an assessment on where we are and where we need to go. It emerges that the meeting in Copenhagen will have far from failed if all that was promised is delivered. Indeed the ambitions associated with the Copenhagen Accord could cut greenhouse gas emissions by a not insignificant 7 Gt of CO2- equivalent, leaving a gap of perhaps 5 Gt in 2020.

There are huge opportunities for bridging that gap, accelerating a response to climate change, and tackling a host of other environmental challenges. Over the past year, the science on so called non-CO2 pollutants — such as black carbon, methane from sources such as rubbish tips, low-level ozone and nitrogen compounds from vehicles and farming — has become clearer, as has how some of these combine to aggravate their global warming potential.

This suite of pollutants may, it is estimated, be responsible for up to 50 per cent of climate change and — since they are short-lived in the atmosphere — rapid action on them could bring reductions in global warming in days, months or just a few years. Important as this is, it does not preclude the need for aggressive reduction of long-lived gases such as CO2, but should be a key complementary measure.

Cutting these short-lived pollutants also has other benefits as they are also responsible for a wide range of other impacts. Black carbon, for example, is a key component of the indoor and outdoor air pollution estimated to kill at least 1.6 million people a year — and damages agricultural productivity. Others also harm health and crops and help cause “dead zones” in the seas. They need curbing anyway, even without climate change. And many, if not all, can be addressed through national and regional health or air pollution agreements — or through forward-looking partnerships such as the new Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves.

Yet the window for action is narrowing fast. The next climate convention meeting in South Africa in 2012 may be the opportunity to realize a new twenty-first century treaty. But Cancun also needs to make its own mark in contributing towards a transition to a low carbon, resource-efficient Green Economy, powered by clean technology. It can and it must be a time where action on financing, mitigation and adaptation can mature — perhaps supplemented by action on other greenhouse gases. Above all it must demonstrate to business and to the public alike that Governments remain serious and committed to counter climate change, while seizing the opportunity to meet wider development and environmental goals.

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