Climate Change Contraction & Convergence Emissions Impossible Zero Net

Wishful Thinktanking

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After the accusations and counter-accusations of the attribution of blame, can we at least start moving on from who was responsible for the failure to obtain a global treaty at the United Nations Climate Change UNFCCC conference in Copenhagen in December 2009 ?

None of us have a complete awareness of the ideas and thoughts of others. International negotiations are bound to be limited by lack of knowledge and understanding, clashes of personality and conflicts of national, social and corporate interests.

It is important, however, to try to comprehend the starting points, the foundational ideology, of those we are attempting to negotiate with.

Here it is very important to keep our feet on the floor and our ears to the walls. Why exactly, did the AOSIS, the Small Island States bloc reject the Copenhagen Accord ? Why did the elite group of nations that signed the Copenhagen Accord dismiss the AOSIS and their demands for 350 ppm atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Why was China so resistant to the Copenhagen Accord ? Could it have anything do to with their fears of economic loss ?

As Aubrey Meyer of the Global Commons Institute put it in a telephone conversation with me today :-

“…Of course the Chinese were going to say no…”Your targets are a function of your prescription [of what the global deal should look like]…We’re not going to be short-changed by you”…”

In the video linked at the top of this page, you can maybe get to grips with part of the problem. The United Kingdom Government has relied on the work of Nicholas Stern to form the basis of their overarching narrative and their negotiating position. And yet few people have put the wishful thinking of Nicholas Stern under the spotlight of pragmatic critique.

The idea that the rich countries have zero rights to further Carbon Dioxide emissions, borrowing from the GDR Greenhouse Development Rights, EcoEquity argument, is something that a majority of richer nations would dismiss on principle.

To be more “radical” in Stern’s own words, trying to put the position that rich countries have negative Carbon Emissions Rights from now, is quite obviously going to fall flat on its face : nobody could even attempt to argue cogently for that, or expect it to be accepted. The case is unarguable.

If you want the United States to join a global deal, you need to dismiss their historical emissions so they know they can have a share of the cake. If you want China to join a global deal, you have to make sure they know they can get a good share of any future capped Carbon Budget.

The United States and China effectively want the same thing : their rightful share of future wealth. Nobody should enter negotiations with these two players offering the idea of something that would jeopardise that basic underlying desire from both parties.

Surely there is nothing more ambitious than getting the biggest future emitters to agree on a Global Carbon Budget and their piece of the pie ?

In this piece of footage, we see Colin Challen MP (taller, standing on the right) interviewing Nicholas Stern (shorter, standing on the left) at the UNFCCC Conference in Poland in December 2008.

The publication that Nicholas Stern refers to is “Blueprint for a Safer Planet : How to Manage Climate Change and Create a New Era of Progress and Prosperity”, which he published in April 2009. The publication that Colin Challen refers to is “Too Little, Too Late: The Politics of Climate Change”, which he published in February 2009.


Colin Challen MP : Yes…how’s things ?
Lord Nicholas Stern : I’m alright.
Challen : I was just doing…
Stern : Sorry [I didn’t recognise you]. Maybe it’s down to the suit.
Challen : You remember : we’ve taken evidence from you in Committee ? I’m here with several hats on. I’m just doing a bit for Aubrey’s crowd, the Global Commons Institute.
Stern : Aubrey Meyer ?
Challen : Yeah. Aubrey Meyer. I’m quite pleased actually, being a pro- Contraction and Convergence (C&C) person myself, that a lot of people here now are coming to that view. Perhaps maybe more in NGOs than the Governments, but even Governments are showing more interest. A guy I was talking to yesterday, who used to be head of the Japanese Delegation…
Stern : You see my worry about that is that the inequity of the past, I think, implies that rich countries should probably have zero rights for a while.
Challen : When would that start ? That’s the trouble. If you’re converging over a period of time then you don’t have to have an immediate response, which implies that I don’t think…
Stern : I have worries with the idea that this [is] equal rights to damage the commons as opposed to equal rights to enjoy the commons. So I actually think it’s not radical enough.
Challen : Ah. Well, what would be more radical ?
Stern : I think that rich countries should have zero rights for a while because of the contribution they made over history; and the next 30 or 40 years, is the kind of time period, 50 years, that we’re talking about…
Challen : From a negotiating position that’s going to be even more difficult than C&C isnt it ?
Stern : They’re not talking about negotiating position in this ethical argument. They’re talking about what is the right thing to be thinking about ? This is logically prior to the negotiating positions. A different kind of discussion. Now, within the real world, negotiating positions really do matter, but I think a bit of clarity in the ethics is very important on this.
Challen : I would absolutely agree with that. I was just talking to this Turkish guy about their contribution…
Stern : We’re not on any sort of record here ?
Challen : You don’t want it on the record ?
Stern : We’re having a nice quiet chat.
Challen : Yes, we’re having a nice quiet chat.
Stern : I wouldn’t want it being beamed all over the place otherwise…
Challen : OK, well in that case we’ll say it’s off the record. OFF THE RECORD. And this is interesting…Zero rights. If we’re looking at …
Stern : You could argue negative rights. And some […] for example in the Indian Delegation are arguing exactly that. You see it’s the difference between flows and stocks. The flow of […] emissions each year and the history of the stocks have to be considered together in my view.
Challen : Yeah, absolutely. But…
Stern : I think, practically, I think we’re going to have to converge in terms of emissions by 2050. We will all have to be around 2 tonnes per capita. But that’s not the same as emissions rights. It’s very important to be a bit more clearheaded about this I think.
Challen : I agree. We’ve recently done a paper on that…
Stern : I include some of it [his own position, not Challen’s] in my economic review paper in America Economic Review, published in May. I’ve got a bit more in my book coming out end of March, beginning of April.
Challen : What would be the practical steps then to get to your preferred option ?
Stern : It’s clarity on what the ethical conditions, ethical arguments that we’re putting. I think that to assert that there is a right to emit is entirely unclear to me in its ethical foundations. A right to development, a right to shelter, a right to energy – these are all different kinds of questions. The right to emit that’s being claimed not to enjoy the commons but to damage the commons.
Challen : Isn’t that really rather a semantic point ?
Stern : No, it’s not. It’s a very important point because it means that when you should be open, and arguably more ambitious.
Challen : I once asked a question at the RSA a couple of years ago on this very point. Given that we all have to emit…
Stern : No, we don’t have to emit
Challen : We breathe out CO2…
Stern : Net [Carbon Dioxide Emissions to the Atmosphere]
Challen : Net, no…
Stern : There’s lots we can do…
Challen : …I would say that’s a good starting point…
Stern : […] we’re all going to celebrate your right to breathe !
Challen : There’s more than the right to breathe. The right to breathe in terms of CO2 is neutral, but it does lead into other areas of thought…
Stern : We’re trying to break the link between Energy and emissions.
Challen : Absolutely right, yeah, and to…
Stern : [aside to Chris Taylor] You know Colin Challen ? This is Chris Taylor…
Challen : Even if you have this ethical understanding, how does it translate into [a negotiating position] ?
Stern : You see I’m opening the ethics. I don’t understand the argument for narrowing it down the way you’re describing. I actually think we should have more ambition in terms of rights.
Challen : It has to have a practical application – how do you convince developing countries that have been [ruined] so many times by our ethical and charitable instincts ?
Stern : Look, I’m supporting India. I’m speaking at the Indian Delegation here.
Challen : Yes, I know. As an elected politician one has to see the ethical argument there…
Stern : But the bargain…
Challen : …compared to this… ?
Stern : I think that the rich countries declare for at least 80% reductions […] reductions by 2050, and we have to look for quite substantial support beyond simply the trading that will come out from that.
Challen : […] Oh well. Good. I’ve got a book coming out shortly.
Stern : Good to see it.
Challen : It’s not optimistic, as will be evident from the title.
Stern : Yeah. Sorry about the…it must be the absence of a suit or something. First time I’ve seen you without a suit…
Challen : I decided this is my last day. I’m having a dress down day. I was in a suit all week…so…
Stern : Good to see you Colin.
Challen : See you.
Stern : See you.


Ambition does not necessarily breed results.

I think it would be fair to say that poor analysis of the way that different countries and blocs of countries view proposals for emissions reductions led directly to a “failure” at the Copenhagen conference.

Hypothetical arguments about ethics are not going to cut a deal.

The evidence suggests that there has been no progress in breaking the link between Energy and emissions.

During the Start of the Recession in 2008, Energy use went down in several regions and sectors in developed countries, and not surprisingly, so did Carbon Dioxide Emissions.

Not surprisingly, because over 90% of all the Energy used by industrialised societies comes from Fossil Fuels, which give off Carbon Dioxide when they are burned.

Nicholas Stern has been promoting his approach to the global treaty for quite a few years now, and it hasn’t led us a deal. Is his thinking in the clouds ?

On the basics, I think he’s got it. There has to be some kind of recognition of limits in the Earth system with regards to atmospheric pollution.

That final person to light up a cigarette in the small bar will create a miasma that chokes every last musician on the stage. That’s why we have a smoking ban – we have to cut it out – and the only right response is zero net emissions. Since the small bar has no windows, the only right way to proceed is to cut out smoking altogether.

The Earth is not quite the same as the small jazz bar – the oceans and plants soak up some of the Carbon Dioxide we emit to air – but not all of it – and the smoke is filling up the room. We have to make sure it does not become overpowering. We have to arrive at a balance – the stabilisation of concentrations of Greenhouse Gases in the Atmosphere, as agreed so long ago by the United Nations.

But how do we get there ? This “beautiful curve” of Contraction and Convergence, the calculus that can be programmed to perform music to differing initial and final conditions, that shows us the sum total of our fair shares : this is the way to have a productive global conversation about Carbon Emissions.

Every other suggestion is piecemeal or unrealistic, because varying countries will not be able to accept losing out.

The United Nations’ Yvo de Boer has been heading in the direction of Contraction and Convergence, but it’s rather sketchy.

He has been trying to get major emitters to sign up to individual commitment to emissions reductions, that it is hoped will add up to the Carbon Budget we need and not spill over.

So far, progress is not good.

Something else needs to be injected : urgency. We do need to decide pretty soon how we are going to share out rights to the Atmosphere.

And something else needs to be there : accountancy in a framework of accountability.

If we have to rely on the goodwill of each country to conform to their promises under the Copenhagen Accord, even when they have not been able to fulfil their commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, then I think there is no chance of success.

All the emissions reductions have to add up to the right total, and no more.

What is needed is a sense of future responsibility, not historical blame.

Yes, by all means, China, fight for your rights to develop your economy, for the benefit of your people. But don’t forget that the science is more certain than your economy – Climate Change is real and it’s happening now, right on your doorstep and even inside your house.

The evidence from Climate Change already seen, caused by emissions from several decades ago, should be enough to convince you to make plans to de-Carbonise.

And yes, United States, continue to try to overcome your top-heavy economic position and your problem with debt, by trying to protect your industrial base and consumption patterns – shop for the Nation.

But at least realise that in several decades from now, nobody will be shopping if all the products rely on Carbon-intensive processes.

We have one more chance. We have to recognise that we have a finite Earth, with a thin Atmosphere, and that we cannot afford the kinds of temperature rise that Global Warming could bring.

There are thresholds beyond which the Biosphere will suffer huge losses. Corals are already dying. More vital yet, trees cannot survive above a certain temperature – photosynthesis seems to halt as the trees take emergency action to try to save themselves.

Rainfall patterns are changing. Weather patterns are changing. Things don’t happen in the way they used to. We cannot be sure that Life on Earth will be able to adapt fast enough.

How do we know what rate of Carbon Dioxide Emissions is too much ? How do we know what concentration of Greenhouse Gases in the Atmosphere will cause irrevocable change ? We don’t know accurately. There is a great deal of uncertainty.

This implies zero tolerance for Carbon Emissions – zero net emissions.

We can stop talking about keeping temperature rise to under 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. We are already committed to that rise from the emissions of the last 30 years, even if the world’s economy juddered to a halt tomorrow.

“No net emissions” has to be the goal.

We need some time to make this happen.

We need an awful lot more cooperation to make this happen that we have at present.

It’s time to ditch the think tanks and the gurus and get facilitation experts into all the top-level meetings.

Everybody wants the same outcome, if you scratch the surface of their apparent differences – we all want to survive and prosper. And in fact, we want everyone else to survive and prosper as well. China would lost half its export market if it no longer had an America to trade with.

Everybody cares about keeping a viable future for their children, so somebody needs to manage the international negotiations to navigate around wishful thinking.

More information on Contraction & Convergence :-

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