Will Paris be a success or a failure? It will be both. The real question is whether it opens the way to a new future of justice and ambition.
This essay was first published in the Earth Island Journal.
As I write this, the United Nations climate conference is only weeks away. And now, of course, it will take place in an atmosphere of mourning, and crisis, and war. Beyond this change of tone, what difference will the November 13 attacks make on the outcome of the negotiations? It is impossible to say, though it’s not too much to hope for heightened clarity, and seriousness, and resolve. This is a time to attend to the future – on this, at least, we should be able to agree.
The essay below was finished before the attacks. I’ve changed only these opening words, which already said that the stakes were high. This has not changed. Nor has my overall claim, that while the negotiations are not going well, they’re not going badly either, and that in any case they must be judged in realist terms.
There’s a way forward for the negotiations, though you wouldn’t know it from some of the commentary, which can be amazingly glib. My favorite example, a perfect snapshot of post-Copenhagen, pre-Paris despair, is food guru turned climate expert Mark Bittman, writing in The New York Times last year: “The U.N. Summit will be a clubby gathering of world leaders and their representatives who will try to figure out ways to reward polluters for pretending to fix a problem for which they’re responsible in the first place; a fiasco. That’s not hyperbole, either. The summit is a little like a professional wrestling match: There appears to be action but it’s fake, and the winner is predetermined. The loser will be anyone who expects serious government movement dictating industry reductions in emissions.”
In fairness, Bittman was writing about COP 20 in Lima, which took place a long year ago. But it was clear even before Lima that this sort of cynicism was counterproductive. The old stories of developed vs. developing, polluters vs. people, duplicitous vs. heroic — true though they were, were simply not true enough. By Lima, the US and China were working together to strike a deal that would hold on both sides of the North-South divide. By Lima, the “climate equity” debate within the halls was making as much progress as the “climate justice” debate in the streets; which is to say, quite a lot, but not nearly enough. In any case, Lima was anything but a futile exercise. It was a breakthrough meeting in several ways, not least because the 134 country G-77+China bloc of developing countries finally begin to negotiate well, and in so doing set up a possible breakthrough at COP21, the 21st Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris.
Since Lima, the meeting schedule has been exhausting, and I’ve been to my share. Many of the formal ones have been in Bonn, where the Germans have built the climate negotiations an efficient and even beautiful new home on the Rhine. (The climate negotiations, after all, will never be over.) They’ve also been in Paris, and Lima, and Geneva, and New York, and all around the world. But here’s a question: What are all these meetings for? And how shall we judge them? If you were head of communications at Greenpeace, say, or Oxfam, and if you knew that, soon, on a cold and probably very late night in Paris, you were going to have to “call the outcome,” and that the media would be pushing you, hard, to say either “success” or “failure,” how would you prepare?
What do words like “success” even mean, in a world like this one, in the face of the coming crisis?
An unprecedentedly broad and diverse coalition of global civil society organizations and social movements (see the list here) has just released a joint assessment of the national pledges of action (called “INDCs” in UN lingo) that are being submitted in the global climate negotiations.
This assessment was done with eyes towards both adequacy and equity. Fundamentally, it asks what the INDCs add up to in relation to a 1.5°C / 2°C degree goal, and if each country is pledging to do its fair share of the necessary mitigation action, based on its historical emissions and its capacity to act. When it comes to public mitigation finance, adaptation, and loss & damage, the assessment restricts itself to estimating total global needs.
Technically, the Civil Society Review draws upon the analysis and modeling of the Climate Equity Reference Project, which is, of course, strongly associated with this site. However, it is done with respect to specific range of equity settings, one which defined the agreement within the coalition and, notably, one which is narrower than the range of settings supported by the Climate Equity Reference Calculator. On the adequacy side, it is referenced to a challenging global mitigation pathway that represent a widely used distillation of the most stringent category of pathways in the IPCC scenario database.
There are many details, most of which are explained in the report. The key point however, and please keep this in mind, is that the review does not argue that countries should only do their fair shares. Rather, it seeks to identify which countries are offering to do their fair share, which need to do more to meet their fair share, and which must be supported to do even more — sometimes much more — than their fair share if the world is to reach a below 2°C or even 1.5°C pathway.
The full report, the summary report, and the list of supporting organizations can all be found at http://civilsocietyreview.
Remember Thomas Piketty, recently famous for a book named Capital in the Twenty-First Century? Well the very same Thomas Piketty (Paris School of Economics), together with Lucas Chancel (IDDRI, Paris School of Economics) has just published a paper called Trends in the global inequality of carbon emissions (1998-2013) & prospects for an equitable adaptation fund. And a fascinating paper it is!
Trends in the global inequality of carbon emissions is a call for a global progressive carbon consumption tax (with a 0% marginal rate for those below a key threshold) that is designed to provide $150 billion a year for the global adaptation fund (a key climate fund that, while formally established, is woefully underfunded).
The crucial thing here is that Chancel / Piketty explicitly seek a globally progressive tax on individuals rather than countries. They do this for a number of reasons, but first among them is the judgement that inequality between people has (since 2013) become a greater source of emissions inequity than inequality between countries:
“Our estimates also show that within-country inequality in CO2e emissions matters more and more to explain the global dispersion of CO2e emissions. In 1998, one third of global CO2e emissions inequality was accounted for by inequality within countries. Today, within-country inequality makes up 50% of the global dispersion of CO2e emissions. It is then crucial to focus on high individual emitters rather than high emitting countries.”
Here’s the key graphic:
Here’s a concise description of the entire paper, from the abstract:
“This study presents evolutions in the global distribution of CO2e emissions (CO2 and other Green House Gases) between world individuals from 1998 and 2013 and examines different strategies to finance a global climate adaptation fund based on efforts shared among high world emitters rather than high-income countries. To this end, we combine data on historical trends in per capita country-level CO2e emissions, consumption-based CO2e emissions data, within-country income inequality and a simple income-CO2e elasticity model. We show that global CO2e emissions inequalities between individuals decreased from Kyoto to Paris, due to the rise of top and mid income groups in developing countries and the relative stagnation of incomes and emissions of the majority of the population in industrialized economies. Income and CO2e emissions inequalities however increased within countries over the period. Global CO2e emissions remain highly concentrated today: top 10% emitters contribute to about 45% of global emissions, while bottom 50% emitters contribute to less than 10% of global emissions. Top 10% emitters live on all continents, with one third of them from emerging countries.”
That last line is extremely important, and there’s more where it came from. The authors discuss the top, bottom, and middle regions of the global income / emissions distribution and are able to tell us that, counting “indirect (or consumption-based) emissions,” the emissions rates for the richest 1% of Americans (about 300 tCO2e / year) are likely representative of the top 1% around the planet. That, in the middle of the global distribution (where people emit about 7 tCO2e per person per year), we find “the top 1% earners from Tanzania, the upper middle class (7th decile) in Mongolia and China as well as poor French and Germans (respectively 2nd and 3rd income deciles,” and that, at the bottom of the global distribution, we have, for example, the poorest 7% of the population of India, (at about 0.15 tCO2e).
A recent essay, entitled Hurricane Katrina showed what “adapting to climate change” looks like is proof of this, and given that we’re still on track for a full-fledged climate catastrophe, it’s required reading. And be clear about the context here — this is not a brief against adaptation, which will be essential — but an argument against those who pretend to seriousness by presenting adaptation as an alternative to a full-bore mitigation mobilization.
Here are some of Robert’s key points:
* Adaptation will be extremely expensive — much more expensive than reducing carbon emissions up front — and just as politically difficult.
* Mitigation is altruistic and universalist; adaptation is tribal and local. In other words, Adaptation “is not global but local, not universal in impact but highly targeted. A billion dollars of mitigation helps everyone a little bit; a billion dollars of adaptation helps a few people a lot. Specifically, adaptation helps people who have the luck to live in areas that can afford it.”
* Mitigation slows the spread of inequality; adaptation speeds it up. This one I will quote at length:
Late in June, a coalition of global civil society organizations launched The People’s Test on Climate 2015, a set of high-level considerations that they suggest we keep in mind when we judge the outcome of the Paris COP. As we inevitably will. It aims to highlight the fundamentals: to stress the importance of climate action for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, and to insist that the real goal is and has to be progress towards a more just and sustainable society.
The People’s Climate Test is useful because it skirts the choice between “success” and “failure” — Paris is unlikely to be either — and instead asserts the importance of three high level goals:
* Sustainable energy transformation – redirecting finance from dirty energy to clean, affordable, reliable and safe renewable energy, supporting people’s solutions including decentralized community renewable energy systems, banning new dirty energy projects, ensuring that access to clean, affordable, reliable and safe renewable energy is a public good, reducing energy consumption particularly by wealthy elites, and ensuring that reducing poverty and achieving justice is prioritized throughout the transformation;
* The right to food and water – ensuring people’s access to water and to land for climate resilient food production, stopping land grabs and the ongoing conversion of land from food to commodities like biofuels that are falsely presented as solutions to the climate crisis, and supporting sustainable agro-ecology and climate resilient food production systems
* Justice for impacted people – securing and building the resilience of impacted people including reparations for the world’s impoverished and marginalized people who have no role in causing climate change, yet whose lives and livelihoods are endangered by its effects, supporting a just transition for workers into the new environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy, and supporting people- and community-driven adaptation and rehabilitation solutions.
It states these, and then lays out the test itself. “To meet that test, the Paris Summit must:
* Catalyze immediate, urgent and drastic emission reductions – in line with what science and equity require, deliver urgent short-term actions, building towards a long-term goal that is agreed in Paris, that shift us away from dirty energy, marking the beginning of the end of fossil fuels globally, and that keep the global temperature goal in reach;
* Provide adequate support for transformation – ensure that the resources needed, such as public finance and technology transfer, are provided to support the transformation, especially in vulnerable and poor countries;
* Deliver justice for impacted people – enhance the support to adaptation in a new climate regime, ensure that there will be a separate mechanism to provide reparations for any loss and damage that goes beyond our ability to adapt, and make a firm commitment to secure workers’ livelihoods and jobs through a Just Transition;
* Focus on transformational action – ensure that renewable and efficient solutions are emphasized rather than false solutions that fail to produce the results and protection we need, such as carbon markets in land and soil, dangerous geoengineering interventions, and more.”
This is a good list! Keep it in mind. And watch this space.
Since we’re coming up on the Big Paris Meeting, and since it’s more or less inevitable that it’s going to be widely judged to be a failure (even if it’s not!) it’s worth noting that the DivestInvest movement is also failing to deliver the big breakthrough that we now so clearly need. This, at least, according to a piece called Fossil fuel industry still winning the investment war that Alex Kirby just published over at Climate News Network.
What’s the problem? Only the impacable force of fossil capitalism as usual. The economics of renewables are every day better than the last, but as far as the investment industry is concerned, that’s no reason to scale back fossil investment, not even fossil investment that’s increasingly unlikely to pay off at anything like the expected rate. If at all.
I don’t bring this up to be snarky. The fact is that nothing is working fast enough, at least not yet. But with the cost of solar dropping, and the negotiations posed before a possible breakthrough, and the Pope making all-important connections between climate change and economic justice, there’s clearly a smell of change in the air. In all this DivestInvest is critical key, even if it’s not the silver bullet that its boosters imagined.
There isn’t going to be any silver bullet. Not unless you count the overarching ethos of the movement, the one that Paris is going to spotlight. To wit: we’re in this together, and we’d better start acting like we know it.
This is the text of a TEDx San Francisco talk I gave on October 29th. It’s called “Stories of the Future,” though of course TED talks don’t have titles. The video hasn’t been posted yet, and when it is it will probably embarass me, so I thought I’d just publish this the old fashioned way, on the web!
This raises a question about the 21st Century — has it begun yet? I think it has, though it’s hard to mark its exact beginning. To do so, you need a storyline. A story of the future.
If you want a dystopian story, it’s easy to date its beginning. Just use September 11, 2001.
But what if you want to tell a helpful story? One in which we actually deal with our greatest problems. A believable story in which the historians of the future look back to our time, today, as a time of new beginnings. What date, exactly, would mark these beginnings?
Let me suggest two possible dates, marking two very different storylines, which are fated to play out together.
There are many ways to compare humanity’s demands to the Earth’s ability to meet those demands. Scan the literature, and you’ll find plenty of approaches, and plenty of metaphors for what we used to call “The Limits to Growth.” Carbon budgets, temperature targets, and planetary boundaries all come to mind, as does the equity debate in the climate talks and, of course, the ecological footprint.
This (August 13) being 2015’s Earth Overshoot Day — the day on which, according the ecological actuaries at the Global Footprint Network, we’ve blown though 2015’s entire annual biocapacity budget — the footprint approach takes the spotlight. It’s earned the attention, for it’s a clever compromise between rigor and comprehensibility, and this is a rare thing indeed.
The power of the footprint approach is its flexibility, especially the way it scales. You can look at the planetary footprint of humanity as a whole — all our constructions, from wheat fields to weapons labs, taken together. Or you can talk about national footprints, wherein a country’s weight is compared to the biocapacity that lies within its borders, or, alternatively, to the footprints of other nations. Or you can talk about the footprint of a town, or a city, or a zipcode. You can talk of — and investigate — your own personal footprint. (Spoiler: Fly less!)
You can investigate footprints over time, in which case you’re going to be talking about ecological debts. You can even — and, alas, we do this far too seldom — talk about class footprints, by which, say, the weight of a nation’s elite is compared to the weight of its poor. You can aggregate people into groups, or you talk in per-capita terms. And the cool thing is that, in all these ways, the metaphor holds. You can be understood.
There are, of course, uses and abuses. This being Earth Overshoot Day, I can hardly fail to mention that the notion of “overshoot” has too often been used to carry water for reductionist forms of Malthusianism in which “overpopulation” dominates the stage, and hard thought about overconsumption and unjust distribution somehow never get equal time. On the other hand, we may have finally reached the point where we can leave this dismal history behind. As we do here: the “overshoot” of Earth Overshoot Day is not ideology, but rather methodology.
There’s much more to do, of course. In particular, there’s more to do on the distributional side of the footprint challenge. Oxfam tells us that, sometime in 2016, the “global one percent” — to richest hundreth of the human population — will own half of everything on the planet. The exact date when this great event takes place is not knowable — the data isn’t good enough — but it’ll happen soon. And the day it does will be at least as important as Earth Overshoot Day 2016.
Meanwhile, this is still 2015. The year of Pope Francis’ encyclical, and the year when Overshoot Day landed on August 13th. (Back in 2006, when Andrew Simms evidentally dreamt up the idea, it fell in October.) It’s also the year of the Paris climate accord, and next up on that agenda is fighting like hell to make sure Paris comes to something real. If we succeed, we won’t live to see the day when the annual overshoot moves forward into July. And then into June . . .
This is not someplace we want to go.
Noted climate scholar Benito Mueller of Oxford University and Oxford Climate Policy has a new “Think Piece” called “The Paris Predictability Problem: What to do about climate finance for the 2020 Climate Agreement?” His essay dissects a subset of the problems in the international climate negotiations associated with the provision of financial support by rich countries for mitigation and adaptation in poor countries, captured by the term “climate finance.” Mueller’s focus on predictability is an alternative to a focus on the scale of such finance or its “additionality” (whether it is not simply repurposed from other development aid).
There is much of interest in this essay, but what particularly caught my attention was his suggestion that subnational sources—like California’s cap and trade program—might be a possible source of appropriately predictable financing. (Note that this is different from considering whether “offsets” under a cap and trade policy could be sourced internationally.)