It is, indeed, quite reassuring to know the growing consensus among the academics, scientists, researchers, environmentalists and political leaders from across the globe that climate change is the greatest environmental challenge currently confronting humanity. Today, the accumulated effects of human activity are threatening the entire eco system and thereby the very survival of our planet. In the given situation, the debate on climate change and its socio-economic implications has gained unprecedented momentum. Undoubtedly, there is a crying need for countries and related institutions to adopt strategies to prevent global warming and its fatal consequences.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted during the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. This Framework Convention is a universal convention of principle, acknowledging the existence of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change and giving industrialized countries the major part of responsibility for combating it. The adoption of the Kyoto Protocol at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 was a milestone in the international negotiations on tackling climate change. For the first time, binding greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets were set for industrialized countries. The protocol, which entered into force in 2005, was intended to cover the period 2008-2012.

A longer-term vision was introduced by the Bali Action Plan in 2007, which set timelines for the negotiations towards reaching a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, due to expire in 2012. It was expected that an agreement would be reached by December 2009. Although Copenhagen, Denmark, did not result in the adoption of a new agreement, COP15/CMP5 recognized the common objective of keeping the increase in global temperature below 2°C. Furthermore, industrialized countries undertook to raise $100 billion per year by 2020 to assist developing countries in climate-change adaptation and mitigation. Cancún, Mexico, in 2010 made the 2°C target more tangible by establishing dedicated institutions on key points, such as the Green Climate Fund.

The willingness to act together was reflected in the establishment, in 2011, of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), whose mandate is to bring all countries, both developed and developing, to the table to develop “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” applicable to all the States Parties to the UNFCCC. This agreement should be adopted in 2015 and implemented from 2020.

In the interval until a legally binding multilateral agreement is implemented in 2020, the Doha Conference (Qatar) in 2012 established a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (2013-2020), which was ratified by a number of industrialized countries, and terminated the Bali track. The Climate Change Conferences in Warsaw, Poland, in 2013 and Lima, Peru, in 2014 enabled essential progress towards COP21 in Paris in 2015. All the States were invited to submit their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions ahead of COP21.

Unfortunately, in the past two decades, the world has witnessed more of rhetoric and less of action about the critically important issue of climate change. In 1992, at Rio de Janeiro the nations of the world agreed to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. Since then, 195 countries have met 20 times, held heated debates, issued serious declarations and signed well drafted communiqués but without pressing the needle on carbon emissions. Adding salt to the wound, in that very intervening period, we have added almost as much carbon to the atmosphere as we did in the previous century. Last year and the past decade were the warmest since temperature records began. A soul stirring and record-breaking heat waves are now five times as likely as they once were. A large part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, scientists reported last year, is doomed to collapse. It clearly implies that in the coming centuries, sea level will rise at least four feet and probably much more. We are already redrawing the map of the planet, especially of the zones where animals, plants, and people can live.

A very candid analysis has been made by Dr. Ramón Pichs-Madruga, deputy director general and senior researcher at Cuba’s World Economy Research Center (CIEM) and member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Bureau, as he highlighted the importance of establishing a global, legally binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In his very recent interview with Radio Habana Cuba, he stated, “The Paris conference is being held in a context where advances have been insufficient. Thus far we have seen a process advancing at two different speeds: on one hand there are scientific studies on climate change which are progressing rapidly, with reliable research, reports and analyses demonstrating the impact, causes and consequences of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as strategies and responses by countries to tackle the situation; and on the other, multilateral policy negotiations are progressing at a much slower and checkered rate.”

According to him, this is one of the reasons why the world is expectantly looking toward the Paris Conference. The majority of these discussions in the on-going conference in Paris are taking place in the context of negotiating multilateral policies which stem from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (effective since 1994) and the Kyoto Protocol (2005). With this Protocol a quantitative commitment to reducing greenhouse gasses – in particular by industrialized nations-was adopted. The first period of the Protocol ended in 2012, during which new commitments - scheduled to come into effect in 2013- were agreed upon. This still hasn’t happened due to the failure of various countries to ratify them. Taking these negotiations farther, the 21st International Climate Change Conference is being held in Paris, France. One of the main aims of the event is to reach a defining global agreement on the fight against climate change.

Although a lot of it is still just talk yet there is also an unmistakable trace of hope in the air. China and the United States, the two largest carbon emitters, have announced a deal to reduce emissions. Six European oil companies say they would welcome a carbon tax. Similarly, a giant Norwegian pension fund has pledged to stop investing in coal. And the pope has also brought his immense spiritual authority to bear on the problem. It is quite encouraging that some concrete actions for combating climate change have gone beyond promises and declarations. In 2014 global carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning did not increase, even though the global economy was growing. We would not know for years if it is a trend, but it was the first time that had happened. One reason emissions were flat was that China, for the first time this century, burned less coal than the year before. Another major reason for that is the booming production of renewable energy-wind and solar and hydropower- in China, as it is in many other countries. Even Saudi Arabia has gone bullish on solar.

Time has already come to think out of box and act on war footing to combat climate change. In the past half century we have created a world in which people on average live two decades longer than they did before. They cross oceans in a day with barely a thought. They communicate instantaneously and globally for barely a penny and carry libraries in the palm of their hand. Fossil fuels helped make it all possible. But by the second half of the 21st century, the world must see more reliance on renewable sources of energy and thus achieve the desired goal of sustaining a low-carbon economy. In the final analysis it can safely be inferred that if a climate disaster is to be averted, we will have to move forward without relying as much on fossil fuels. It can be done. The time to act is here and now.

The writer is a member of Superior Civil Services of Pakistan.