Lost in translation in a bottom-up world?

I’ve just read an interesting paper by one Jonathan Pickering (University of Canberra). It’s called Top-down proposals for sharing the global climate policy effort fairly: lost in translation in a bottom-up world? and is well worth reading, not least because it is a corrective to the view, unfortunately popular on the “climate street,” that Paris is a fraud because, well, only a top-down principle-based regime could possibly be real.

Pickering, for his part, offers a nice capsule analysis of why a top-down regime was never in the cards, and not just because the wealthy countries of the North refused its disciplines. Also, and importantly. there’s the unfortunate fact that:

“While developing countries have supported the idea that developed countries should share their efforts according to a common formula, they have resisted the idea that developing countries themselves should be subject to the same formula.”

This position was justified, and probably still is, by the Convention’s statement that developed countries should “take the lead” in protecting the climate system, but it had consequences in any case, and we’re facing them today.

This paper is both clear and useful. As Pickering says in the abstract:

“I proceed by endorsing the commonly held view that top-down proposals typically prioritise distributive equity over institutional feasibility, whereas the converse holds for bottom-up proposals. However, I argue that a more comprehensive evaluation of proposals for sharing national efforts also needs to take account of their procedural equity. Top-down proposals frequently provide less clarity than bottom-up proposals on how procedural equity could be assured. Accordingly, a hybrid approach combining elements of top-down and bottom-up proposals may be better suited to advancing both substantive and procedural values simultaneously.”

More particularly, the paper explores the tension between “distributional and social impacts, and institutional feasibility,” and unlike many climate policy papers, it does not do so only to conclude, more or less immediately, that distributional concerns should be quietly set aside. Rather (I’m skipping a few steps here) it winds up discussing the need for equity review based on top-down principles (this, in the bottom-up context, is what Pickering means by “a hybrid approach”).  Which is to say, it argues that the bottom-up approach (see the Paris Agreements) is necessary, but that it has to be supplement by meaningful review mechanisms.

Like so:

“In discussions on possible oversight mechanisms, the idea that the new climate regime should adopt an ‘equity reference framework’ to guide deliberation has become increasingly prominent. Under an equity reference framework, both ex ante or ex post review mechanisms could be guided by top-down proposals to varying degrees. For example, countries could justify their national contributions on the basis of a framework incorporating a selection of credible top-down proposals, while a multilateral review process could assess the adequacy of national contributions against the framework. If adopting even a range of credible proposals as benchmarks for review proves too contentious, the framework could be based on individual indicators commonly used in top-down proposals such as national income and emissions. While countries would retain discretion whether or not to revise their contributions in the light of the outcomes of reviews, backsliding could be deterred by the stipulation that countries could only revise the stringency of their contributions upward, not downward.”

If you’re following the debate on non ideal ethics and the climate crisis, read this paper. If you’re not, there’s still time!