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Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Why "Climate change agreement" may be an oxymoron

At the end of a lesson on environmental politics last summer a student slammed her textbook on the table and wearily commented that "the study of global politics is basically learning why nothing will ever get better". To be fair to her, we had just covered poverty and global warming, both topics rather doom-laden, but in some ways she was right.

Look at the attempts to claim that the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in Cancun that finished this weekend was a success: If you had told activists two years ago that they would claim that a 2010 agreement that covered adaptation financing (which accepts climate change is happening and prepares countries for it) and technology transfer (sharing the knowledge and skills to make production greener) but doesn't commit anyone to a monitored reduction in emissions they would have thought you mad. But the car crash that was Copenhagen has refocused expectations - and it has left the simple fact that the UN is actually capable of facing in the right direction on climate change as a sign of real progress.

So why is it that we can't get a global agreement on such an important issue as how to stop climate change?

1) The question of the science - despite the sheer weight of science available to prove that climate change is happening and that it has been caused and can be reduced by human behaviour there are many who are sceptical about the science. The science community itself hasn't helped itself by seeming so unwilling to discuss and publish any sceptical studies and there has also been the "climate-gate" scandal of last year involving the alleged hiding of data which suggests there was something to hide. Something to think about is this: If climate change IS happening and we DON'T do anything about it, the results could be catastrophic for all. If climate change ISN'T happening and we DO something about it, the result could be slower economic growth for many countries. Which is worse?

2) The tragedy of the Commons - the term was coined by Garret Hardin in 1968, who said that  - "where there is unrestricted access to a resource owned by no-one, there will be an incentive for individuals to grab as much as they can, and if the resource is finite there will come a time when it is ruined by over-exploitation as the short-term interests of individual users overwhelm the longer-run collective interests" - The resource in this case is our atmosphere and the pollution caused by emissions is the problem. Hardin's solution was to 'privatise' the resource - as if someone owns something they will be incentivised to look after it long-term, and then have central world government regulate their use.  BUT the emissions causing climate change are a 'transboundary' problem - in that it crosses national borders AND it is physically impossible to enclose the area which is being polluted AND there is no effective global governance available, mainly because so many countries will not allow their sovereignty to be infringed by global governance. Many will point to the way that the 'Montreal Protocol' solved the problem of the hole in the ozone layer 20 years ago. But this was a "point-source issue" - we managed to isolate the cause of those (CFCs from aerosols and fridges) and resolve the problem. With global warming there is debate over the causes and the sources and so it is much more difficult to know what will resolve the problem.

3) Sovereignty and the national interest - the three principles of sovereignty are that nation states are responsible for their subjects' security, liberty and prosperity. During a recession in the USA is it really possible to tell senators from "rustbelt" states dependent on coal mining, steel manufacturing and heavy manufacturing that they must sign up to action on climate change which could cost many thousands of jobs? Are UK citizens going to sign up to electricity bills rising by 25% and be happy to see the economy shrink by 1% by 2020 in order to achieve emissions targets (as Lord Turner - the government's climate change adviser has admitted)?Are China's government ever going to be persuaded to allow international monitoring of their emissions, given they won't allow even internal monitoring of their actions?

4) Will governments take on consumers? - Western democracies value choice. Will consumers REALLY accept having their choices dictated by government - which is ultimately what will need to happen in order to persuade companies to change production techniques enough make the necessary emissions reductions? Given numerous surveys still put climate change as low on voters' priorities, wouldn't the restrictions on energy use required not be politically unpalatable? Will banks accept being directed to lend money for green infrastructure projects without government guarantees? Terry Leahy of Tesco says that given they operate in such a competitive market they need to give customers what they want - so he needs customers to change first. Will they do so without government coercion? Will they accept that coercion?

5) Common but differentiated responsibities -
the 1992 UNFCCC ('Rio Summit') developed the key principle that although all nations had to accept responsibility for the world's climate, it was developed nations that were immediately responsible as they had benefitted from the industrialisation which was regarded as the cause of the excess CO2 emissions which had caused the climate change. The USA emits around 25% of the global total but has only 4.5% of the world's population. Chinese figures are 14% and over 20% of the world's population. The 35 least developed nations emit under 1% yet account for over 10% of the world's population. So it would have to be the developed countries that lead the way in making reductions. The Kyoto Protocol in 1997 then committed only developed countries to make reductions. This led to the US Senate passing the Byrd-Hagel resolution making it clear it would not ratify any agreement where developing nations - many of whom were already economic competitors to the US, did not also have to make emissions reductions. They have said that they want China and India to commit to emission reductions - leading to an Indian Foreign Minister saying this was like "Guys with gross obesity telling guys just emerging from emiaction to go on a major diet". Common but differentiated responsibilities sounds ok in theory but will it happen in practice?

6) The primacy of economic development -
As I mentioned in an earlier article on them, China has 200m inhabitants still living in absolute poverty. The priority of their government is to remove them from that poverty. The UK once had many inhabitants in absolute poverty. They solved it by industrialising on a massive scale, regardless of the emissions that result. So did the USA. So did most of the West. Now we're expecting countries like China and India to introduce costly energy saving measures at the same time as they need to grow to take their population out of poverty. We are now at the situation where the USA won't adhere to a climate change regime without China and India signing up to it but they don't see why they should, and have a strong argument that it is not in the best interests of their population to do so.

At the end of the day we are trying to create a regime that will deal with climate change. These problems above have put us at an impasse. Any ideas?

1 comment:

  1. An excellent summary of the problem, Paul. I see a role-play exercise coming on...