Global Issue Paper No. 30
By Paul Baer & Tom Athanasiou (Ecoequity)
“There remains a frightening lack of leadership”
Kofi Annan 15 November 2007, addressing the COP/MOP in Nairobi
While the climate debate is raging, the climate negotiations themselves are barely moving. Finger pointing seems to be the name of the game, with each negotiating bloc focused on passing the bill for solving the climate crisis onto the others. The process as a whole is in impasse, and it’s time to admit it, as it’s time to admit that disagreements about fairness and equity are at the centre of the impasse.
So recall that both the Berlin Mandate (1995 at COP1) and the Kyoto Protocol (1997) implement equity in a particular way: The developed countries take the lead in accepting binding reduction commitments. Other countries may follow at later stages: This was the implicit assumption of the early negotiations.
But it is not enough. Ten years after Kyoto, greenhouse gas emissions are rising steeply. Moreover, we know that we have far less time than we previously thought: If we’re to keep the temperature increase below the critical threshold of 2 degrees Centigrade above the preindustrial level, then emissions increases must be very rapidly curbed, and total emissions must soon begin to steeply drop. All this makes the Kyoto Protocol’s focus on legally binding reduction commitments more necessary than ever. But its stepwise approach is in deep crisis due to threefactors:
- With the exception of the EU, most developed countries have failed to live up to their Kyoto commitments. Even many of the EU member states are not on track and will have to resort to the flexible mechanisms to meet their commitments. The US and Australia have not ratified and is difficult to imagine how Canada might stick to its commitments.
- Kyoto’s division of the world into developed, developing and transition countries, a division inherited from the Cold War and even colonial times, is increasingly questionable given the profound shifts in economic and associated political power that we’re now witnessing.
- Kyoto’s flexible mechanisms convert national commitments (or their residual “assigned amounts”) into a tradable commodity. But as long as there is no rational basis, no principle-based method for determining those commitments, the horsetrading logic of the negotiations in which these commitments are fixed seems likely to lead to a race to the bottom in terms of environmental ambition. Countries that take on ambitious commitments but fail to implement them domestically will be punished financially, while countries that stone-heartedly assume only minimal commitments and then easily meet them might be rewarded. It’s easy to see that this kind of process creates perverse incentives towards minimizing commitments in each subsequent round, and that this is quite the opposite of the process that we need to lead us down the path of steep emissions reductions, the path that we’ll have to follow to keep the planet below the 2 degrees threshold.
It’s in this context that our interest in principle-based approaches to climate agreements arises and persists. Such approaches, to be sure, are not the ones most frequently cited as being likely to be adopted for the next commitment period, and they’re easily dismissed as unrealistic by most seasoned climate negotiators and even NGO observers. But it would be unwise to rush to a final judgment, and to decide that principle-based approaches have no critical role to play. Indeed, given of the urgency of the climate crisis, and the inability of the current approach to overcome stalemate and deliver results in line with the objective of avoiding dangerous climate change, it may yet be necessary to step back, and to reconsider approaches that redefine political realism rather than accepting it as we know it today.
We commissioned this comparison of a number of approaches as an input to an international roundtable in early May 2007. But we believe that it might well be useful to a wider audience as well, by stimulating thinking outside the established paths. The way things look at the moment, such thinking is going to be needed.
Heinrich Böll Foundation