It’s about 15 months now until the Paris climate showdown.
The good news is that there’s quite a lot happening. The clarifying science, for example, is no longer easily denigrated. The IPCC’s 2°C carbon budgets, the new age of “extreme weather,” the fate of the Arctic, these can no longer be cast as fervid speculations. Denialism – at least classic denialism – has peaked. This is a time of consequences, and we all know it.
But what about Paris? Why do I even mention the international climate negotiations? Don’t we all know that the North/South divide is unbridgeable? Don’t we all know that the wealthy world will never provide the finance and technology support that’s needed to drive deep and rapid decarbonization in the emerging economies? Don’t we all know that the prospect for a meaningful breakthrough in the climate talks is nil?
In fact, we do not.
Bill McKibben has a nice comment he called Let them build seawalls.
Writing from his perch at the Cato Institute, Charles “Chip” Knappenberger explains why the U.S. should avoid taking a leadership role in any climate negotiation: because others have more at stake:
Such information is carefully concealed in Obama Administration reports, such as the one issued recently by the Council of Economic Advisors that predicts escalating costs the longer we delay serious climate change mitigation efforts. Instead of focusing on domestic costs of climate change, the report is built around an estimation of the global cost for carbon dioxide emissions—which, by the Administration’s numbers—is some 4 to 14 times greater on a per ton of emitted CO2 basis than those projected for the U.S.
Translated: climate change is going to be worse for Bangladesh, so let them deal with it. . .
Read the whole thing, it’s not long.
Ready for a stimulating new cut across some old territory? Think about “responsibility,” and take a look at Carbon Majors Funding Loss and Damage, a discussion paper by Julie-Anne Richards and Keely Boom of the Climate Justice Project – “an independent not for profit, non-government organisation that uses the law to expose environmental and human rights issues relating to climate change.”
Among other things, the analysis here includes the idea of corporate — rather than national — historical responsibility. In fact, it shows “that a small number – fewer than 100 – entities have a significant responsibility for the climate change currently being experienced.” More generally, it’s based on the idea that private entities that have profited from, and continue to profit from, the fossil-fuel economy should be responsible for a good fraction of the “loss and damage costs” associated with carbon pollution.
This is a ground breaking idea, and it deserves a lot more attention, in this our unfortunate age of corporate personhood. ”Persons,” after all, have responsibilities as well as rights.
Great but not perfect, alas. For example, the opening tag says “New equity calculator says UK needs to cut emissions 94% by 2020, US by 73% and China just 9.4%.” And of course this will be read as implying that the is the one sole result of the calculator. When in fact is it one among many.
Here’s comment that I made soon after the piece was posted:
“Not that I’m complaining about the publicity, but one clarification. Where the RTCC author says . . .
China’s emission trajectory for 2020 is a whopping 16,688 MtCO2e, just under the target total for the whole world. But the ERF calculator says it just needs to shave off 1,575 MtCO2e, or 9.4%.
What he should have said is something like . . .
China’s emission trajectory for 2020 is a whopping 16,688 MtCO2e, not much less than the mitigation target for the whole world. Of this, according to the ERF calculator, it needs to itself finance mitigation of 1,575 MtCO2e, or 9.4%. (It’s “fair share”). The total mitigation that needs to take place within its borders is, of course, much greater, and amounts to about 4,673 MtCO2e, or 28% of China’s projected 2020 baseline emissions.
The problem is that this last number is hard to read out from the Calculator UI as it currently stands. We will fix this.
Also, the case RTCC used is (Include land use emissions, 1950 responsibility start date, weak 2C pathway, Capacity/Responsibility = 50/50, development threshold = $7,500) is not the one I would have chosen. If you exclude land-use emission from the calculation and use 1990 as the responsibility start year (this reduces the global mitigation requirement) the readout on China would be:
China’s emission trajectory for 2020 is a whopping 16,750 MtCO2e, more than the mitigation target for the whole world. Of this, according to the ERF calculator, it needs to itself finance mitigation of 1,845 MtCO2e, or 11%. (It’s “fair share”). The total mitigation that needs to take place within its borders is, of course, much greater, and amounts to about 4,690 MtCO2e, or 28% of China’s projected 2020 baseline emissions.”
. . . So, really, we just have this wee little political problem!
Equity and spectrum of mitigation commitments in the 2015 agreement is really a fine piece of work!
We don’t just say this because it’s fair minded and forward looking. We say it because, though we’re pretty full-time on global climate equity, we rarely see stuff as helpful as this.
Equity and Spectrum was just published by the Nordic Council, which is evidently “the official inter-parliamentary body in the Nordic Region” It was authored by Steffen Kallbekken, Håkon Sælen and Arild Underdal, and it’s essential reading for one reason above all — the Paris showdown is less than two years away, and there’s some work to be done before it arrives.
Warsaw was a bad sign. The authors of Equity and Spectrum say that, “at best, modest progress” was made, but they are being too kind. Moreover, they probably know it. Take a look at their summary of the COP19 outcome (section 4.3) and you’ll see what I mean. Warsaw was in many ways a dark and embittering experience, and the more I think about it the more I see it as a warning, one that we had best heed.
The key point of this comment: The authors of Equity and Spectrum have to a large (but not entire) degree reached the same conclusions as we, the authors of this Greenhouse Development Rights framework, and as the Equity working group of the Climate Action Network. They cite the GDRs work, and discuss the Climate Action Network’s Equity Reference Framework proposal in detail, and it is the later discussion — and how they integrate it into a larger discussion about the path forward — which we were so pleased to see. They unfortunately miss the fact that the CAN work is essentially a generalization of the “responsibility and capacity index” approach that underlies GDRs, but you can’t have everything.
Here’s how they introduce their position, early in their paper:
“We argue that a potentially feasible and constructive way forward is a mutual recognition approach. This approach implies that parties should accept a set of norms, and a range of interpretations of these norms, as legitimate (i.e. as consistent with the CBDR/RC). Parties should also respect a principle of reciprocity, which means that any (interpretation of a) principle of fairness invoked by oneself can legitimately be invoked also by others.”
This is exactly right, and extremely important, for it does indeed appear to offer a way forward. Which is to say that if we’re all very clever, and very lucky, this will be widely recognized by COP20 in Lima in December. And put into motion as well.
In a wide ranging and insightful interview, Yen Saño — the Philippines lead negotiator who rose to fame when, saddened by the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan and frustrated by the slow pace of international action, he fasted through two weeks of climate change treaty talks in Warsaw – has just publicly endorsed the Greenhouse Development Rights approach.
The exact quote, in context, is:
Saño: We cannot force countries which are not Annex I countries to take on obligations of the same nature as Annex I countries. However, I think countries must set aside narrow national interests and be able to contribute in an ambitious way, not just towards a post-2020 regime but an immediate regime. My country cannot afford to wait six more years for the whole world to take action, and six years of no legally binding emissions cuts for me is a catastrophe.
This is a global endeavor, and if we are to subscribe to narrow national interests, we can go our separate ways and forget about solving climate change.
What the Philippines, I think, would like to advocate for is a Greenhouse Development Rights approach. I know that’s not going to resonate well with many countries, both in the north and in the south, but it’s really about rights. It’s about the life of a single Filipino having the same value as one American or one European. We all deserve equitable access to the planet. That should be the primary parameter, rather than economic competitiveness.
Well here I am again at the climate talks, this time in Bonn: the latest stop on the long slog in the latest attempt to break the stalemate. It’s not looking too good right now, for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that the wealthy countries are still not doing, or proposing to do, anything like their fair shares of the global effort that would be needed to stabilize the global climate system.
More on this later. For now here’s a primer that I wrote for this morning’s issue of ECO, the daily NGO newsletter.
Everybody always talks about equity, but no-one ever does anything about it. In hopes that someday the Parties might, ECO would like to offer this quick cheat-sheet.
It’s not true that “equity is in the eye of the beholder.” Sure, there’s a lot to disagree about, but the UNFCCC really does give us someplace to stand. Three places, actually, for when all is said and done, the Convention affirms three high-level precepts: 1) Avoid dangerous climate change, 2) Divide the effort of doing so on the basis of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities,” and 3) Protect “the right to sustainable development.” If it’s consistent with these three principles, it’s probably fair, or at least a fair enough start.
It’s CBDR+RC, not CBDR. Those last words in the second principle – “respective capabilities” – may be challenging, but they’re not any more challenging than “historical responsibility,” and in any case they’re not going away anytime soon. And just because some Parties wish that the responsibility issue would just fade away, that doesn’t mean that other Parties are being helpful by trying to push capabilities off the boat. Two wrongs, as they say, don’t make a right. Not even a development right.
The climate crisis is a global commons problem – emphasis on the word “global.” However you understand your climate obligations, they’re global obligations nonetheless. The responsibility that each nation has to do its fair share is a responsibility to all other nations, or rather, to all the people (and creatures) of the world. If you have a lot of responsibility and capability, and if you thus have more tons to mitigate than it is possible to mitigate within your own borders, then doing your fair share means going beyond your domestic mitigation, and also providing the finance and technology needed to mitigate elsewhere. Which is to say that finance is part and parcel of your mitigation obligation.
Finally, we don’t have to absolutely agree about what’s fair and what’s not. Approximate agreement is a whole lot better than stalemate and standoff. Think of the problem politically. We need to be able to identify climate leaders (who are actually doing their fair share) and climate laggards (who are doing, or proposing to do, much less). In this regard, a rough common understanding is quite enough. ECO believes that if we can win such an understanding, all else will follow.
Well, maybe not “all else.” Because no common understanding will substitute for ambitious finance. We know Paris isn’t just about finance, but if we don’t get some, COP21 is going to be a grim affair indeed.
- Tom Athanasiou
(An shorter version of this review was published in Earth Island Journal in the Spring of 2014)
COUNTDOWN: Our last, best hope for a future on Earth?
Little Brown, 2013, 513 pages
During his recent book tour, writer Alan Weisman told me that Paul Ehrlich, he of The Population Bomb, said that “Countdown is the best book on population written in decades.” It’s a nice line, and a considered judgment (see Ehrlich’s own review), and I have no reason to dispute it. Countdown is a good book and a fine read. It crosses dangerous ground, and while it stumbles, it does not fall. If it’s read closely and fairly — a big if these days — it will be helpful.
Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I’ve known Weisman for some time, and count him a friend. But Countdown is a population book, and I hate Malthusianism. They’re not the same thing, of course, but I still hesitated before reviewing it.
First up, what’s this “Malthusianism,” and why is it hateful? Well, Malthusianism is a specifically biological kind of reductionism, one that buttresses right-wing pessimism and policy conclusions, and one that not at all incidentally pushes social justice off the political agenda. It does this by telling a tale in which we humans are simply animals, and are fated by our natures to fill our niche to overflowing. But this just isn’t true. We’re animals, sure, but we live in history as well as nature, and as Marx pointed out long ago, we make our own history, or at least we try to. It’s never been easy, and it only gets harder when we pretend that exponential breeding is the fundamental reason that things are getting away from us.
Is Weisman, then, a Malthusian? No, he is not. He gets close, but he doesn’t drink the cool aid.