|People working for non-governmental, and governmental, organisations can be rather defensive when I criticise the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC. What ? I don’t back the international process ? Climate change, after all, is a borderless crime, and will take global policing. Well, I back negotiations for a global treaty in principle, but not in practice.
The annual wearisome jousting and filibustering events just before Christmas do not constitute for me a healthy, realistic programme of engagement, imbued with the full authority and support of global leadership structures and civil society. People can try to spin it and claim success, but that’s just whitewash on an ungildable tomb.
The Climate Change talks that have just taken place in Durban, South Africa, were exemplary of a peculiar kind of collective madness that has resulted from trying to navigate and massage endless special interests, national jostling, brinkmanship, unworkable and inappropriate proposals from economists, communications failures and corporate interference in governance.
The right people with real decisionmaking powers are not at the negotiating table. The organisations with most to contribute are still acting in opposition – that’s the energy industry, to be explicit. And the individual national governments are still not concerned enough about climate change, even though it impacts strongly on the things they do consider to be priorities – economic health, trade and political superiority.
Over 20 years ago, the debate on what to do to tackle global warming and still maintain good international relations was already won, by the commonsense approach of Contraction and Convergence – fair shares for all. Each country should count on their fair share of carbon emissions based on their population – and we would get there by starting from where we are now and agreeing mutual cuts. The big emitters would agree to steeper cuts than the lower emitters – and after some time, everybody in the world would have the same, safe emissions rights.
What has prevented this logical approach from being implemented ? Well, we have had the so-called “flexible mechanisms” pushed on us – such as the Clean Development Mechanism which essentially boils down to the idea that the richer high-emitting countries can offset their carbon by paying for poorer low emissions countries to cut their carbon instead. Some have been attempting to make the CDM carbon credits into a commercial product for the Carbon Trading market. Some may contest it, but the CDM and carbon trading haven’t really been working very well, and anyway, the CDM doesn’t aim for emissions reductions, just offsets.
Other carbon trade has been implemented, such as the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), which doesn’t appear to have caused high emissions industries to diversify out of carbon, or created a viable price for carbon dioxide, so its usefulness is questionable.
Many people have put forward the idea of straight carbon pricing, mostly by taxation. The trouble with this idea should be obvious, but rarely is. Over four-fifths of the world’s energy is fossil fuel based. Taxing carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels would just make everything, everywhere, more expensive. It wouldn’t necessarily create new lower carbon energy resources, as the taxes would probably be put into a giant climate change adaptation fund – a financial institution proposed by several people including Oliver Tickell and Nicholas Stern, although in Stern’s case, he is calling for direct grants from countries to keep the fund topped up.
On the policy front, there has been a continuing, futile attempt to force the historially high-emitting countries to accept very radical carbon cuts, as a sign of accountability. This “grandfathering” of emissions responsibilities is something that no sane person in government in the richer nations could ever agree with, not even when being smothered with ethical guilt. One of the forms of this proposal is “Greenhouse Development Rights“, essentially allowing countries like China to continue growing their emissions in order to grow their economies to guarantee development. The emissions cuts required by countries like the United States of America would be impossible to achieve, not even if their economy completely toppled.
Sadly, a number of charities, aid and development agencies and other non-governmental organisations with concern for the world’s poor, have signed up to Greenhouse Development Rights not realising it is completely untenable.
The only approach that can work, that both high- and low-emitting countries can ever possibly be made to agree on, is a system of population-proportional shares of the global carbon pie. And the way to get there has to be based on relative current emissions, ignoring the emissions of the past – your cuts should be larger if your current emissions are large. And it should be based on the relative size of the population, and their individual emissions rates, rather than taking a country as a whole. Yes, there will be room for a little carbon trade between nations, to enable the transfer of low carbon technologies from wealthy nations to un-resourced nations. Yes, there will be space for enterprise, as corporations have to face regulation to cut emissions, and will need innovation in technology to divest themselves of fossil fuel production and consumption.
This is Contraction and Convergence – and you ignore it at our peril.
A few suggestions for further reading :-
“Contraction and Convergence The Global Solution to Climate Change” by Aubrey Meyer. Schumacher Briefings, Green Books, December 2000. ISBN-13: 978-1870098946
The Greenhouse Effect : Science and Policy” by Professor Stephen H. Schneider, Science, Volume 243, Issue 4892, Pages 771 – 781, DOI: 10.1126/science.243.4892.771, 10 February 1989.
“Climate Change : Science and Policy“, edited by Stephen H. Schneider, Armin Rosencranz, Michael D. Mastrandea and Kristin Kuntz-Duriseti. Island Press, 10 February 2010. ISBN-13: 978-1597265669
“Equity, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and Global Common Resources” by Paul Baer, Chapter 15 in “Climate Change Policy : A Survey” by Stephen H. Schneider, Armin Rosencranz and John O. Niles, Island Press, 2002. ISBN-10: 1-55963-881-8 (Paper), ISBN-13: 978-1-55963-881-4 (Paper)