A CEO Interview: Michael Grubb

Michael Grubb is one of our best known international climate policy analysts. Currently at the Royal Institute for International Affairs and at University College, London, Grubb has written on all aspects of the climate problem, focusing especially on issues of equity, emissions trading, and European leadership.

This interview was conducted on December 30 2002 (we were still in the shadow of COP8) by Paul Baer and Tom Athanasiou of EcoEquity. It’s been a while, we know, but we’ve been busy, and there was that war… And, actually, Michael’s comments are only more interesting for the delay.

CEO: We’ll start by talking about COP8, which is of course the most recent grist for people to draw on to bolster their pet theories. It seems to us that COP8 was kind of a bad omen, a bit of writing on the wall, a reappearance of North/South deadlock; that instead of the progress that had been made at Bonn, instead of the re-emergence of what you called the green coalition, which was essentially the Kyoto coalition, we saw real confrontation.

The EU was saying, “Ok, we want to put second commitment period discussions on the table.” And this was in the context of the Delhi Declaration and the South said “No way, you haven’t even got it in force yet, and why should we agree to even talk about talking.” And it became a sterile deadlock over a question that was completely symbolic: the Delhi Declaration wasn’t going to actually mandate anybody to do anything.

So our take on it was that it was this sort of bad sign of reemerging deadlock, and we wonder what was your broad take on it Is this consistent with your view or do you have a more subtle spin

MG: Well, first, I didn’t actually make it, which was just due to travel problems in the end, but I did hear a certain amount about it. My reading is that what happened at COP8 reflects two things. One is continuing internal problems within the EU, particularly related to continuity of negotiating teams given the rotating presidency and various other changes of personnel after Marrakesh, and so I think that there wasn’t really the continuity of experience that was required to talk about things that, as we know, are very sensitive. The other shows some of the less obvious difficulties posed by US withdrawal. The real reasoning within the EU is: we’re desperate to get the US on board, the US precondition is developing country commitments, therefore we need to talk about developing country commitments.

CEO: And you think that’s the primary logic behind the EU’s position in Delhi

MG: I don’t know, but I would guess that that was a major driving argument behind trying to push that issue with new urgency.

CEO: Interesting. Given that the well-publicized demand from the South has been per capita commitment or something like it, do you think that many people in the EU are aware that it is likely to be a demand from the South in order to have these sort of discussions And that the US is sort of playing one side against the other, which is very problematic

To be blunt: It seems to us that the EU is going to have to offer per capita in some form to get the South to even play, and that if they think that the US is going to be offended if they bring it up then they’re kind of stuck.

MG: Well I think that things are a bit stuck on a number of fronts. I mean, frankly, the way things were handled in Delhi confirms my feeling that not many people in the EU are thinking about this very seriously, strategically. I think their desire was to find some avenue to start talking, rather than any very clear sense of what the politics of any ultimate negotiations might be.

And, in a nutshell, I don’t think that they would be prepared, yet, for any very specific discussions about per capita allocations, because I feel they haven’t even gotten to the first base of knowing how to start talking about it.

CEO: I sounds like you’re not particularly optimistic at this point about the European Leadership Initiative.

MG: Well, Europe is a very, very complicated beast. In one sense I am moderately optimistic: I think quite a few of us have been saying for a while that the regime can’t go any further unless and until there is some serious implementation. And the refrain from North America has been that the Europeans, frankly, like playing international politics, but aren’t doing anything serious domestically.

And I think this talk has gotten through. And the general politics of what happened around Kyoto last year has led to a situation in which we’ve been able to more or less get through the European Emissions Trading Directive. And it’s inconceivable that Europe will not comply with it’s Kyoto commitments. The way in which it does so might be fairly messy, and I mean there might also be some accusations surrounding European expansion and hot air from the Central European countries and stuff. But the good news is Europe actually is going to implement this thing, and that perhaps is the most important precursor to anything else.

But I’m inclined to agree with you. Delhi really was a disappointment to those of us who also thought that Europe would start getting its act together in terms of really thinking strategically in terms of how to form the green coalition, how realistically to deal with the many issues on the table. I think, again, what we see is that the EU has a somewhat limited capacity and that an awful lot of its energy gets mopped up in its internal negotiations, and not much is left for really understanding what the rest of the world might need in terms of effective leadership.

CEO: A good bit of the discussion at COP8 was about adaptation. It seems to us, though, that this was mostly talk, that there was no real discussion of the crucial issue, which is how much money is going to be put on the table and how it’s going to be allocated, and in particular that if the EU wants Southern cooperation they’re going to have to, in some sense, pick up the slack for the US being out of the regime.

MG: Yeah.

CEO: Do you think that there’s anyone in Europe who’s aware that they’re going to have to put up a little bit more than the 400 million a year that was in the Bonn agreement Because that seems to us, and I’m sure to most people in the South, to be rather inadequate.

MG: Well, I reckon on this one there are two constraints. Once of which is that there is a degree of suspicion in Europe that the adaptation issue is being used to try and take the pressure off mitigation.

CEO: By the US

MG: Or by both. I mean, even by some domestic constituencies, though that won’t get very far. But I think the feeling is that there’s always been a dangerous thread of thinking in the US that says that “If, at the end of the day, climate change is real, we’ll just throw money at doing some adapting. And therefore that we don’t have to take difficult steps in our energy sector.” That makes Europe extremely wary of the whole adaptation issue. And to some extent even in developing countries there’s a feeling that (it’s nothing like this strong, but) “Putting money into adaptation may reduce the sense of developing countries having to commit, and indeed to support the general mitigation regime.” So I think that that’s one sort of background constraint.

But the other is just the politics of European finance, and in particular Germany’s fiscal crisis – which is moderately serious – and the huge bill for European expansion. The fact is, the environment ministers just can’t get very far when they go back to finance ministries and ask for money. And particularly when the finance ministries, which wouldn’t see it in quite the same geopolitical way, can say, “Well, what are the Americans contributing”

If you’re full time in the climate regime you can see a kind of leadership rationale: Europe tying to fill the space left by the US. If you go to a finance ministry in Europe, the dynamics are the opposite. They’ll say, “Why the hell should we pay a hell of a lot more if Uncle Sam isn’t even part of it”

CEO: Do you see any European statesmen who are not linked to either an environment or finance ministry who have the perspective to knock heads together to get these people to see it similarly

MG: To a small extent, I think Tony Blair and John Prescott. John Prescott, particularly, is the deputy prime Minister, but he doesn’t actually have as much political clout as he used to. Tony Blair is, I think, genuinely committed to the Kyoto process and would like to play a bit of a statesman-like role on it. I think the problem is that he just feels, you know, that nothing makes sense without the Americans involved, and he can’t see how to get the Americans involved. And also, you know, with the Iraqi war, I think he’s just not devoting any serious attention to it. And I don’t know what’s going to change that. He sees himself, fundamentally, as a bridge builder across the Atlantic, and if there’s no one on the US side to build bridges to then they’re a bit stumped.

CEO: I’d like to ask a question at this point, about the US bilateral initiatives. It sounds like the picture that your painting is one in which the US has pretty much effectively taken the wind out of the negotiations. And now it seems to be actively trying to undermine the KP itself by setting up a sort of free carbon trading system composed of bilateral initiatives. This seems to be a bit of a provocation, and I wonder how you see it.

MG: Are you referring to the deal with Australia, or anything else

CEO: In part. I’m not an expert in this by any means. But it seems there are about 14 such initiatives being organized by the US…

CEO: Many of them are simply US investment in various clean energy technologies in different places, but the discussion is clearly pointed at producing fungible carbon credits. Something like a NAFTA for carbon, and with Australia, perhaps, as well.

MG: Well…

CEO: The Americans seem to be pushing this initiative; let’s just put it that way.

MG: Well I think there are a number of critical things, particularly that the US is taking a more activist position in things that will undermine the Kyoto process — irrespective of what they say officially. And, that’s going to be problematic, given the power of the US politically and economically.

I suppose at the moment the biggest question is whether the US is trying to do anything to undermine Russian ratification, which is I think a possibility and obviously would cause very severe problems. The other stuff is a little more complex. Clearly countries that have commitments under Kyoto have nothing to gain, really, from such trading. It’s just not legally part of the scenery. So in that sense I can’t see the US making many inroads, in terms of undermining the Kyoto architecture. And I don’t see that they seem to gain a whole lot from such trading systems with developing countries either, except perhaps politically, trying to get a G77 bloc which basically says, “Well, we can do some of this stuff outside Kyoto and on better terms because we won’t have to take on commitments.” Or whatever. So I think that there is probably something, if you like, of more political than legal importance going on in these initiatives.

CEO: Now, picking up the second theme here… Tom and I been boning up on your writings, going back to the 1989 Negotiating Targets book … (1)

MG: Oh wow. Alright.

CEO: …and it’s arguably the case that you are the world’s leading climate policy analyst. And at one point, in that ’89 book, you were quite clearly an advocate for a per capita rights-based treaty. And since then, it seems to us that you’ve sort of de-emphasized this advocacy. And it’s not clear to us to what extent this is because you’ve changed your ideas about what’s feasible or to what extent you’ve seen your role change, that you’ve just become more of an objective analyst and other people have taken up more of the advocacy role. Can you comment

MG: Well, that’s an extremely good and fair question. I occasionally ask that myself. And I’ve very touched by your description of me at the beginning…

I think, in a sense I tried to address that question very indirectly in a short section of my book on the Kyoto Protocol (2) on the long term prospects. What I was really trying to say there, in the context of this discussion, particularly about Contraction and Convergence type approaches, is that my observation of the negotiations over ten years has been that, at the end of the day they always come down to what will individual countries accept, and feel that they can present as fair enough when they go back to their domestic constituents. With a lot of the emphasis being upon, “Well, how much cost will we bear relative to what others bear”

Now, obviously, you don’t get in any sense a uniform take on that. And as you saw at Kyoto because of the political circumstances, probably Japan and Canada took on what we now see as a relatively tougher target than maybe the EU and some others; but people weren’t really watching very closely at all, so for example Australia got away with doing very little. Now, that kind of deal was a reflection of the nature of the negotiations with countries basically saying “What are we willing to put on the table compared to what others might be willing to put on And how might we modify that in relation to others”

And that’s what I referred to as the bottom-up nature and to some extent irrational nature of the negotiations. I mean, there’s a certain sort of rationality to it, but it’s a very, very different one than standing back and saying “From a global perspective what are the ethically defensibly rights on this issue”

And I guess that I, uh… I mean, I don’t know if I’m becoming a little bit narrow minded and conservative in my older age or whatever, but I don’t see enough feasible changing in the way that negotiations are approached to reach some grand global bargain of per capita allocations or convergence towards it. I just think there would be too many countries saying “This is unfair to us because…” And pleading for special exemptions because they were this sort of country or that sort of country or whatever.

In other words, international agreements tend to have quite a few quirks which when you trace back their history are there because some country or other needed that to try to sell it to its domestic constituency. And if you have something which is really a pure rights-based approach you don’t have that kind of flexibility. I think that that would be politically very problematic.

However, although I have seen some ethical arguments to the contrary, I would still maintain that all round the fairest way and certainly the simplest way to do this whole thing would probably be some sort of per capita based allocation. And I do think that some attention on the per capita issue is justifiable, is actually important, and is also unavoidable because developing countries will raise it anyway, and there are perfectly good reasons why they should do so.

I suppose what I slightly fear is what, in a sense, is the theoretical best becoming the enemy of the good. And I guess I do fear a situation of complete gridlock if developing countries aren’t prepared to talk about anything unless it’s absolutely per capita allocations. And even if the EU were willing to go along with that, which in itself might be debatable, I can’t see North America touching those negotiations with a bargepole. And that, in a sense, is, if you like, my own personal dilemma in thinking about it.

CEO: You’re telling a story now about how raising the allocations question could lead to gridlock. But it seems to us that the negotiations are already going into gridlock. So, for us, the question is whether of not the continuation of the process that has established itself in the last five years has any prospects at all, given the American situation.

And within that context, there’s a very immediate and strategic question on the table, though still largely off the record, which is what the NGOs can do to move the situation forward. And the debate is about what for lack of a better term we’re calling “per capita plus” as opposed to pure per capita, where the “plus” denotes attention to varying national circumstances. The idea is an allocation regime based essentially in a transition to per capita, but also allowing for the systematic treatment of an as yet only roughly-defined set of circumscribed circumstances: climatic conditions and resource endowments primarily, though there are other possibilities.

Does that sort of an approach seem to you to be useful, and also, what would it take before you became so pessimistic about the negotiations that you would be willing to, in a sense, return closer to your roots. The first question first: consider a systematically perturbated per capita system that allows for national circumstances; does that seem to you like something that countries could go home and represent as “fair enough”

MG: Let be actually come round to that in a slightly more general context first. The are a number of directions I think we have to try an address simultaneously.

I think there is a pretty fundamental decision that has to be made about whether one wants to try to go for a big bang long term solution, which tries to define what things should look like over the next fifty years or so – and I’m trying not to caricature because I think that there are intermediate stages – or whether to go for something that fundamentally says that there are a lot of uncertainties that will continue to play out in both the science and the politics, and that the idea of sequential negotiations is the way to do it, and you negotiate commitments ten years ahead or so, much as in the Kyoto system.

It may be a somewhat false dichotomy anyway, because you might be able to build in formula for revision and so forth, but nevertheless, and here I return with more conviction to the real politics of the negotiations, and not just the negotiations. Because we’re so ignorant of how emissions will develop in different counties, as well as the depth of the problem and the public concern about it, that I’m very reluctant to get into a situation where we’re trying to solve the problem for fifty years in one set of negotiations. That I have severe concerns about.

I think that something which tries to lay down some principles that should be universally accepted over the long term, as a basis for negotiations which actually come to bear in terms of specific numbers, sequentially; that is perhaps an extremely good halfway house. I just don’t see it being politically realistic or even desirable to try to set too many decades ahead all at one go. So that’s one issue. And in that sense I am a very strong supporter of the Kyoto structure irrespective of almost all the other specific elements. And I can kind of go on and bore you at length about other reasons why I think we need something like that; which includes the fact that, let’s face it, half the countries taking part in the G77 probably are not institutionally capable of knowing what would be a fair result, or of implementing the result if they did. Nor, frankly, should they be expected to put those kind of intellectual resources into an effort which is cause almost entirely by other people’s emissions at the moment. So, yeah, I think sequential both in time and in terms of participation of countries coming into the cap regime is to me an important element.


MG: Now that doesn’t preclude attempts to agree to what some of the underlying principles should for the long term, and I think that would be helpful, and I think that frankly, everything’s open at the moment. The more people thinking and arguing constructively about the way to approach it the better, and if there were some measure of an NGO consensus about at least some of the principles that should underlie future efforts, then I can’t see that doing anything but good.

CEO: Are you aware that the Climate Action Network released a paper (Preventing Dangerous Climate Change) on adequacy at the Delhi conference

MG: I haven’t actually seen that paper, I’m embarrassed to say.

CEO: One of the principles that we did come to consensus on was that 2 degrees C was the target that people ought to hold to, and that if you do the math that means 450 or less, etc, etc. We do think that the adequacy issue is going to drive the negotiations increasingly in the next few years.

MG: I certainly hope it will. Actually, let me make on quick side comment on that. I personally feel that it would be dangerous to argue too much about “What is the safe level” And the reason that those negotiations would tend to be driven to the lowest common denominator. Even if one tries to add “We should remain below X ppm, X might well come out at 550 ppm, given the politics of it. If you could get the Americans and the Australians to sign up even to that it would be something! But there would then be a danger of people thinking that the target should be 550 when it might be, you know, 450 that we should stick with. What I think could be useful would be to get people to negotiate on an acceptable range based on current knowledge. And to make sure the negotiations come out with two numbers, so that everyone in the system, and industries looking at it, were forced to think about “What would it imply for us if we were at one end or towards the other end” See what I mean It’s a different dynamic to the way that people approach the numbers.

Anyway, that was an aside. Let me come to the question of gridlock. I’m not sure that the NGOs should feel too deterred by the possibility that per capita would lead to gridlock because at the end of the day it’s the responsibility of the states as to whether they want to be so adamant about something that we’ll have the negotiations in gridlock for a very long period. It may be something to be aware of, but the other point, which you made, is that frankly the negotiations look pretty grid locked at the moment in any case. Let me give you an indication of, if you like, my own view on that…

I think the real fundamental problem to crack is, to be blunt, the United States. Not because the Europeans are wonderful or anything, but just because structurally American emissions are so much higher, and because they’re refusing to do anything much, and ignoring their responsibility regarding pacts with the rest of the world, and every other country. Like I said: when you go to your finance ministry, or even negotiate about other commitments, the response from anyone who’s not professionally in the climate regime is “Well why should we do anything if the Americans aren’t” From various dimensions the negotiations will remain grid locked until something in the US changes.

And I guess one can hope that this change could come in the context of a completely different global bargain: leave aside Kyoto, move onto something else, perhaps look at a global participation, per capita, whatever, address the American argument about non-participation in developing countries… Such a change of strategy would worry me. I think it wouldn’t address the fundamental problem, that the body politic in the US is not prepared to do anything at the moment for the sake of a long term problem where poor people it doesn’t know anything about are the main victims. And I think a huge amount of effort has gone into the Kyoto process, and that most things in the real work develop by building on what’s been achieved rather than scrapping…

CEO: Excuse me… This discussion is not about “classical” Contraction and Convergence. We’re talking about staying within the sequential decision making model that Kyoto represents. We’re very much talking about building upon Kyoto. But the conversation invariably has to do with a second commitment period deal because that’s what adequacy dictates. So that has to be the focus…

MG: Ok, that’s fine. I feel more comfortable if, well as you say, it’s within the context of future commitments within some sort of Kyoto-like umbrella.

CEO: But the notion that a global deal may help to break the deadlock in the United States, that’s still very much at issue here.

MG: Right. Well, let me tell you what I think has to happen, which is a slightly different take on it, though it might lead to a similar thing. And this might be common reasoning…

Things have to change in the US, not just for cosmetic reasons but because of really deeper things. Now, some of those things are already going on in terms of state level action and so forth. But the position of the current administration is that it’s not willing to talk about anything that involves binding caps, and that has to shift. There’s got to be a sense in the US that the principles of the convention are valid. The rich countries have to be doing something. Obviously other countries have to be involved in a fair manner and so forth, but the rich countries have to do something. And for that to shift, given various sorts of situations and objections, I think one needs Kyoto entered into force, including Canada, so I’m very glad they’ve ratified; I think that may not be quite the end of the Canadian story, because I think there’ll be tremendous opposition in implementation, but I think we have the potential over the next two, three, four, five years, to demonstrate to the US that: by abandoning Kyoto it has not controlled the issue, that it has completely lost control of the issue; that the rest of the world does have the guts to go ahead, is capable of starting to implement this stuff, is implementing a “Global minus US” compatible system of CO2 regulation, which the US is ultimately going to be disadvantaged by not being part of, that all of the arguments that have been laying on the table about “Too costly, too early, etc, are flawed not just in theory but being demonstrated to be wrong by other countries moving ahead. And I think that it’s at that point that you start broadening the discussion to talk about ways out.

CEO: Have you modeled this scenario In terms of what it would be likely to lead to, in terms of carbon concentration

MG: No. I haven’t tried modeling it. Because I think that it’s very hard to say what difference would that imply in terms of emissions.

I think one of the things to try to avoid, and above all when dealing with the US, is the idea that if you can try to find a suitable negotiating fix, then you’ve solved the problem! We actually found a very good negotiating fix in Kyoto, and it was “Minus 7 percent for the United States,” but that was during the Clinton / Gore administration, and its debatable how hard they tried to get a real domestic mandate to implement it, well it turned out to be just a piece of paper that Bush felt at liberty to tear up when he got into office.

What I’m saying is that there’s got to be enough movement in terms of what other counties are really doing and the cost to the US of remaining outside, before you change the domestic situation such that next time around won’t be just as bad. With the US either refusing to negotiate anything that any other country would consider as reasonable or being forced by negotiating dynamics into something a bit stronger but then walking away and saying “Well, actually we can’t really deliver that so we’re not going to ratify it.”

So I’m not sure that what I’m saying implies any weaker action than anything else you could come up with. I just think it’s part of the political dynamic that the only way you’ll get the US to both negotiate and implement a stronger reduction target, which I think would have to be part of the global deal anyway, is if they felt boxed into a corner where they have to find some way out.

CEO: Can you see that happening in five or ten years, given the situation in Europe

MG: Yep. I think that a number of these issues apply irrespective of who wins the next presidential election, and I think that it’s possible, yes, in five years not ten.

CEO: One final question then, which follows inevitably. In that five years, isn’t it also the case that somebody, somewhere, perhaps led by the NGOs, some Southern visionaries, some forward looking think tanks, has to start putting together a proposal for an allocations system that would be meaningful in the long term Isn’t that where equity comes back in

MG: I agree, and like I said, I think the discussion about equitable allocation is healthy, very much so. I know I’ve expressed some pessimism about whether the real world could adopt in exactly, you know, a clean formula kind of way, but I think the more credible discussion there is to say, you know, “Here are fair and broadly feasible ways of going ahead, to build in principles that most reasonable people could accept,” the more it does to undermine the US position that, you know, it shouldn’t do anything until some of the poorest countries in the world have done exactly the same thing, or whatever. I’m caricaturing, but you know, the more is in place by the time the crunch comes then the better the prospects of getting some serious deals.

And I do think that, in a way, US reentry into the system will have to have a quite considerable degree of “new clothing” that can be claimed as concessions from the rest of world, including some in terms of developing country engagement. You know, the more you can clarify some of those things, the better.

I think the most difficult trick to pull, and here I think we better end, but it’s a good take on what to be thinking about: If the US really felt that minus seven percent was far too strong to be conceivable, what the hell are the terms of any reasonable deal that the US might accept And I think that the answer is that it’s got to be prepared to do a hell of a lot more than it’s willing to talk about now. But I think that the problem in a way is if one has something that is too much appealed to developing countries and which simply reinforces the US determination not to touch these negotiations with a bargepole, that might be what would be counterproductive…

1. Michael Grubb, The Greenhouse Effect: Negotiating Targets, Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1989.

2. Michael Grubb with Christiaan Vrolijk and Duncan Brack, The Kyoto Protocol: A Guide and Assessment, Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1999,

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