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Why We Won’t Negotiate Our Way Out Of Climate Change

It is naïve to believe negotiators can produce a legally binding global agreement to reduce emissions, says Barry Carin. We need a Plan B.

By: /
25 March, 2014
By: Barry Carin
CIGI Senior Fellow

Climate change is a wicked problem. Our current approach is inadequate, with little prospect of progress. It is naïve to believe negotiators can produce a legally binding global agreement to reduce emissions, with transfers of $100 billion per year from rich to poor countries.

But we should not passively await our fate. Instead, we should look for indirect routes, ones apparently unrelated to climate change. We should pursue initiatives in other issue areas that are positive in their own right, but have useful spillover effects that happen to reduce emissions.

We can initiate risk-free actions that provide positive rates of return. If the negotiating deadlock persists, we might still be able to limit the temperature increase to 4 degrees instead of 5 or 6 degrees. In the unlikely event the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process succeeds, such initiatives would only help.

There are several factors contributing to the global deadlock in international climate change negotiations. China’s preoccupation with internal issues. Gridlock in the U.S. Congress. The Russians’ perception of global warming as working in their national interest. The powerlessness of the most vulnerable countries facing the effects of climate change. Political support is difficult to build — the danger is in the distant future, but the costs are immediate. Vested interests resist reform. The facts related to future climate projections are in dispute.

There are many unknowns surrounding climate change:

  • Future world population.

  • Future per capita demand for energy resources.

  • Availability and costs of energy.

  • Technology used to produce power.

  • Costs of alternative technologies.

  • Emissions of various technologies.

  • Carbon uptake from the oceans and forests.

  • Climate sensitivity (temperature increase due to higher carbon emissions).

  • Temperature increase impacts (on ecosystem productivity, sea level, extreme weather events).

  • Impact on future economic activity of carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems.

  • Costs of adaptation.

Given the many uncertainties about the extent of the problem and the costs of addressing it, the two-decade-old United Nations negotiating process – aimed at binding national targets and fiscal transfers from rich to poor – appears doomed to perpetual deadlock. We need a Plan B to finesse the obstacles and end-run the uncertainties.

If direct taxation and regulation of fossil fuel production and consumption aren’t feasible, then we can make a start with indirect efforts. A Plan B can ‘do good by stealth’, exploiting synergies with policies for priorities other than climate change. Proponents of action to curtail emissions should invest in efforts in sectors other than energy.

In fact, there are policies in apparently unrelated areas — in education, public health, agricultural productivity, science policy and gender equality — that can contribute significantly to reducing GHG emissions. Initiatives can be designed that are consistent with political and fiscal constraints, work in the national interests of powerful countries and require only gradual change — and just happen to contribute to cutting GHG emissions.

Here’s an example. Universal secondary education for girls is a cost-effective “climate finance” policy because it contributes, indirectly, to a critical decrease in fertility – along with a host of ancillary benefits, such as promoting human rights and decreasing income inequality. Lowering fertility rates would create downward pressure on GHG emissions by decreasing future population growth. While population growth per se is not the principle cause of rising GHG emissions, every little bit helps. Every person, poor or rich, is responsible for emissions.

In other words, the most cost-efficient emission reduction measure is the cut you do not have to make. To limit temperature increase to the UNFCCC target of two degrees, world emissions must decrease from the current 36 billion tonnes a year to 18 billion tonnes a year by 2050. If there are a billion fewer poor people, each of them emitting one tonne per year (compared to the Canadian emission rate of 20.3 tonnes per capita in 2010), the task would be made much easier. Promoting secondary education for girls is an investment in economic growth and quality of life — it’s probably also the single best strategy for adapting to climate change.

Here’s another example: regulations that combat obesity and promote good health. Two researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have observed that public health policies to combat obesity would decrease carbon emissions by reducing the energy required to feed and transport citizens. In 2012 about two-thirds of the more than 310 million people in the United States were overweight or obese. Eradicating obesity could save 200 million tonnes of CO2 per year in the U.S. alone.

Better investments and regulation in the agriculture sector could help as well. Simply improving livestock feeding practices could lead to substantial reductions in methane emissions. A Plan B package could include an agreement to fund research in this area and to share the results widely on a patent-free basis, following up with standards to encourage adoption of best practices.

Then there’s the area of cutting-edge research in new energy sources. China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States are working together on the ITER project, a remarkable scientific effort to prove the viability of atomic fusion as an energy source. These countries have agreed to bear the cost of the project through its 10-year construction phase and its 20-year operational phase. A major component of Plan B could be to emulate the ITER model of collaboration to focus on researching technologies to cut GHG emissions via clean coal, carbon capture, better batteries and the next generation of renewable energy technologies.

The work could be cooperative, but widely decentralized, and the results could be royalty and license-free. The International Space Station and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research are other models of effective research cooperation. But we need leadership — perhaps from the next UN secretary-general or a future G20 presidency — to make it happen.

But maybe the problem isn’t so much the decisions being made, but the people making them. New research suggests gender can be a factor in resolving policy deadlocks. In the words of Margaret Thatcher, “in politics, if you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman”.

An MIT study concluded that group intelligence varies directly with the proportion of women in the group. In business, the proportion of women in senior management correlates positively with Fortune 500 companies’ performance on several measures.

About 90 per cent of the heads of negotiating delegations at Copenhagen were male. In 2010, the U.N. High-Level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing had 19 members; only two were female. Fighting climate change might be a lot easier if more women were involved.

A version of this post first appeared on iPolitics.

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