Democratising decarbonisation after the COP

This piece is part of the SPERI spotlight on the UN climate summit

17 November 2015

The long-awaited Paris climate summit is almost upon us. Much remains to be decided at this latest Conference of the Parties, or COP21, as the meeting is known in climate politics jargon, including financial support and compensation for vulnerable countries, emissions reporting and verification systems, and the legal form and status of the agreement.

For most people, of course, the main game in town is the numbers game: will countries commit to significant emission reductions that will save current and future generations from the more extreme effects of global warming? We can expect thousands of citizens on the streets of Paris calling for greater ambition, but the truth is that this particular deal is already sealed. The numbers are on the tableand they won’t be revised before December. We already know the total emission reductions promised: in fact, they are not even emission reductions, but rather limitations on emission growth. Based on current pledges, global emissions in 2025 will be 34-46% higher than in 1990, and 37-52% higher in 2030. This will limit global warming to about 2.7°C, higher than the official goal of 2°C, and much higher than the 1.5°C vulnerable countries call for. Pushing for more ambitious action is evidently essential, but we now need to set our sights beyond Paris. Expecting promises of more ambitious cuts this year is a recipe for disappointment.

The acronym soup of climate change negotiations can leave even the most seasoned observer bewildered. Acronyms become verbs, which then become adjectives, which then transform again into verbs (e.g. ‘Measuring, Reporting and Verifying’ gave us MRV, then MRVable, then Merv!). Such ‘language’ is clearly impenetrable to those outside the bubble that is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Nevertheless, one particular acronym innovation that ought to be understood is the shift from QELROS (quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives) to INDCs (intended nationally determined contributions).

In the early years of the international climate regime it was widely accepted that climate change mitigation should be pursued through international targets and timetables. The Kyoto Protocol was negotiated by setting a global reduction target of 5% below 1990 levels by 2008-12. National targets were then negotiated to divide the responsibility for reaching this in a broadly equitable way. This ‘top-down’ approach has been replaced in recent years with a ‘bottom-up’ approach whereby states announce what they are willing to do: there is no common baseline year (e.g. 1990), no common timetable (e.g. 2025) and no common goal to be shared out (e.g. 50% global emission reduction). Rather than determine the global outcome we want, and then divvy up the responsibility to achieve it, we now accept an offering from each country and hope it adds up to something ambitious.

This bottom-up idea isn’t brand new. It is a watered down version of something first proposed in 1991. In the face of US resistance to targets and timetables, Japan suggested a ‘pledge and review’ system whereby states would unilaterally choose an aspirational target, which would be periodically reviewed by an international panel. Environmentalists were generally sceptical, dubbing it a strategy of ‘hedge and retreat’. The Europeans shared this scepticism and managed to talk down the idea when the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated. But sometimes bad ideas have a way of popping back up in negotiations.

Whether we get a review mechanism attached to the current unilateral pledge approach remains to be seen. It is one of the key issues still to be decided in Paris or perhaps after. In any case, the shift to a bottom-up approach to climate change governance of itself implies a greater role for pressure from below. Perhaps more than ever before it is important that climate change becomes a central issue of democratic debate. Many would point out that we have already had vibrant and vocal public debate about climate change: in the lead-up to the last climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, hundreds of thousands of people came into the streets calling for ambitious action.

This is necessary but ultimately insufficient. Such protests draw attention to the issue but often produce highly imprecise mandates for acting on climate change. Any demand to ‘Act Now’ sidesteps the many thorny questions about how we can most fairly and effectively ‘decarbonise’ our economies and societies. Such blatant but simple demands are certainly understandable, given the vocal denialist movement (at least in Anglophone countries). They are also understandable in contexts where governments have long resisted any action on climate change. Nevertheless, as we move into an era where all countries are pledging action on climate change, public debate needs to become more nuanced.

In liberal democracies there is a limit on what can be done to make our societies and economies compatible with a stable climate and sustainable environment. We can’t legislate against air travel or large families. But we can demand and support fiscal policies that make some lifestyle choices more ecologically and economically rational than others. More importantly, we can promote debate about the social, political, and economic activities that produce excessive emissions. Reflecting on our collective priorities is essential in a world where clean energy may be neither cheap nor in limitless supply. At least in liberal democracies we have the freedom to reflect collectively on our priorities. We have the freedom to debate questions that are kept off the agenda of politically sensitive international negotiations, including militarisation, consumption choices, population, and economic growth.

Within the UN too, there is no scope for reflecting on the implications of the fact that the largest energy consumer in the United States is the Department of Defense; or the fact that meat and dairy productiongenerates more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s road vehicles, trains, ships and airplanes combined. Greater awareness of the sources of excessive emissions will help us get past the well-meaning lists of ‘10 simple steps to save the planet’ and discuss the larger changes that could deliver more ambitious change.

Some people have already given considerable thought to what a sustainable economy would look like, and what we need to do to get there. They tend to reach different conclusions about role of the state, the viability of capitalism and growth, and the desirability of pricing nature. These voices and debates need to be heard more loudly and widely in the years ahead and they need to be joined by more citizen-engaged debate about our collective goals and priorities in a carbon-constrained world. If the shift to bottom-up global climate governance can trigger this bottom-up democratic debate, it won’t be such a backwards step after all.