Mixed feelings

Yesterday, Thomas Hale and Scott Moore called for a “coalition of the willing” to drive emissions cuts as an alternative to the UN process. As climate talks continue in Bonn, a roundtable of experts responds.

Gao Feng is director of the legal department of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat.

Thomas Hale and Scott Moore are right that “the prospects for global agreement on climate change look bleak”, but this does not mean that it is hopeless – far from it. I am still confident that a global climate regime under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) can be made and that it will play a central role in the global efforts to fight climate change. The only issue here is that governments need some more time. It is hardly necessary to note that whether or not that regime is strong and robust is another matter.

At the least, before a new regime is reached, the UNFCCC will continue to function. It is not convincing to ignore completely the role of the Climate Change Convention as a central platform on which to build any inter-governmental coalition for climate change, involving other potential players, including local governments, business, civil society and so on.

To reach the said coalition and make it operational may need much more time. Some are talking about 2012, even 2015, for governments to agree on a new climate regime. In contrast, the “great transformations in world history” that Thomas Hale and Scott Moore foresee would take decades. Look at the tools for the coalition. The tools such as the “technology transfer regime”, international trade policies and heightened standards in economic sectors, would definitely take more time to build, and may also require inter-governmental agreements.

Andrew Pendleton is senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Moore and Hale are right to say that agreement under the United Nations process will be difficult to achieve and are also correct to recommend pursuing progress where it can be made in the meantime. However, the climate imperative will not be a strong enough argument to catalyse the technological revolution that’s required.

The United States is hopelessly lost in its own politics at the federal level, but many of its states and cities are forging ahead, because they spot economic gain in being the first to deploy – and thus develop – expertise in new technologies. Similarly, while remaining unwilling to make a grand commitment at the global level, China has ambitious plans to deploy renewable-energy technologies and is ahead of the game on developing plug-in hybrid and fully electrical vehicles. India too has ambition, especially – with 300 sunny days each year – in solar PV.

The driver in the case of China and India is almost certainly energy security. India, for instance, is projected to need around 800 gigawatts of installed electricity-generating capacity by around 2030; it currently has around 150 gigawatts. This cannot easily be found through the use of fossil fuels and would make India highly dependent on imports. Solar and other renewables are therefore a pragmatic choice, but also currently expensive.

Thus the focus of international cooperation should not be on climate-change mitigation alone – as very few governments, if any, have a mandate or the political space for costly action to save the climatic system for future generations – but also on reducing the price of renewable energy. This definitely does not require an up-front legally binding agreement (unless the policy plan is to put global cap and trade in place, which seems unlikely) but through technology cooperation to force the pace of innovation and reduce the price. There are very good reasons to do this that are not environmental, such as energy security, hedging against volatile oil prices and stimulating economic growth.

As US environmental advocate Van Jones and Chinese professor Pan Jiahua, two members of the Global Climate Network established by ippr in 2008, recently argued, “If this means a space-race style contest between big economies such as ours, then we are both up for that. But if there are also gains to be made through cooperation, then we’re up for that too.”

Malini Mehra is founder and chief executive of the
Centre for Social Markets.

Few can argue that an effective global treaty is now years away and the best way forward is through coalitions. The UN process has failed to deliver. The reasons are manifold and recognising this does not mean one gives up on the United Nations. It means we realise the limitations of an intensely political and ideologically-charged process to deliver meaningful outcomes in the time scale needed. While the UN process must continue, we need a “Plan B” that responds to people’s sense of frustration and willingness to act. It means we engage with new partners in business and at the sub-national level. The latter are especially crucial in an urbanising world where the urgency to mitigate and adapt will be felt most keenly in megacities.

Where the authors are mistaken is in assuming that the very nations in the G20 that conspired to sabotage Copenhagen will be in the front lines of creative action now. Far more likely is that those nations that were already members of the silent majority for action – the 100+ most vulnerable countries – will make stronger their common cause. Here one can see a role for the minnows taking on the whales. The Maldives, Costa Rica, Bangladesh, South Korea, Norway, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, South Africa, Ethiopia, Singapore and others banding together and showing that a pragmatic way forward is possible – not alone but in partnership with industry and civil society. Copenhagen created fatigue and resignation. To counter it, we’ll need dynamism and creativity. And above all, quiet action and delivery.

Martin Bunzl is director of the
Initiative on Climate Change and Social Policy at Rutgers University.

Despairing of coordinated international action a la Copenhagen, Thomas Hale and Scott Moore call for those who are ready, simply to move – be they governments, sub-national states, corporations or even individuals. It is an engaging idea because it appeals to the frustration of the willing not wanting to be held hostage to the unwilling. I am all for unilateral action, but only if it creates conditions to win over the unwilling. Otherwise, such actions have no chance of making a dent in the problem of greenhouse-gas output.

Meaningful voluntary action will only work if the big players act unilaterally, and that is what makes the need for US climate legislation so important. If the United States joins Europe in enacting serious legislation, it removes the risk to others who may fear that if they were to act unilaterally they would lose a competitive advantage. Moreover, action by the United States and Europe to impose import tariffs on those who do not join them could create a stick that goes along with the carrot. Whether such a stick could be wielded without starting a trade war remains an unresolved issue in this scenario.

CR Huang (a pseudonym) is an energy and climate economist at an international organisation in Beijing.

Scott Moore and Thomas Hale suggest that a climate coalition is a good way forward while the prospects of a global climate treaty continue to look bleak. This is a good suggestion and, indeed, many non-state actors, including local governments of California, Paris, Shanghai and Baoding, private-sector players, NGOs and local communities are already taking steady steps forward to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and develop a low-carbon economy. A strong coalition that shares a common vision, is governed by fair rules and has wide support would certainly enhance the effectiveness and influence of the current loose efforts and ensure better coordination and consistency among various initiatives and targets.

However, we should not forget that that much of these efforts will take place in the developing world, where assistance in both technology and finance is still eagerly anticipated. The UNFCCC negotiation in Cancún this year has to solve at least these issues, in particular ensuring the delivery of those pledges that were made in Copenhagen last year, so that we can remain hopeful of reaching a global climate deal on emissions reductions by 2012, before the expiry of the Kyoto Protocol.

Therefore, we still need to devote a vast amount of effort to ensuring progress is made in the UN process, rather than treating it as a lower priority simply because it is difficult to move forward. Indeed, some elements of the climate coalition proposed by Scott Moore and Thomas Hale, especially the carrots and sticks, will not be any easier than the climate negotiation itself and could not be agreed unless progress is made in the UN process.

It is worth adding that, contrary to what Moore and Hale say, the reduction in emission intensity announced by China is indeed an internationally verifiable reduction. Just because the cut cannot cancel out the growth at this stage of China’s development does not meant it should not be counted. Emissions reduction in a rapidly developing economy is no easy task and the cut in intensity made by China translates to a major emissions reduction given the vast size of the economy. When building a climate coalition, recognising the various efforts by many parties is critical for building the trust among them so that all parties can work together for the common goal.

Homepage image from stock.xchng

Thomas Hale and Scott Moore set out their approach here