Prag­ma­tism in cli­mate pol­icy

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The diplo­matic ef­fort to forge an in­ter­na­tional agree­ment to mit­i­gate cli­mate change is un­der­go­ing a fun­da­men­tal shift. The top-down ap­proach that has guided the ef­fort since 1992 is slowly be­ing re­placed by a bot­tom-up model. Rather than at­tempt­ing to craft an ac­cord based on legally bind­ing re­stric­tions on green­house-gas emis­sions, the new ap­proach re­lies on vol­un­tary com­mit­ments by in­di­vid­ual coun­tries to rein in their con­tri­bu­tions to cli­mate change.

This is, in one sense, an ad­mis­sion of fail­ure; such an ap­proach is un­likely to limit the rise in global tem­per­a­tures to less than 2 de­grees Cel­sius, the tar­get set by the United Na­tions in 2010. But given the slow pace of progress so far, small prag­matic steps by in­di­vid­ual coun­tries may be far more pro­duc­tive than at­tempts to strike a grand bar­gain that re­mains for­ever out of reach.

In­ter­na­tional ne­go­tia­tors have made sig­nif­i­cant progress over the last five years, but they are still far away from an agree­ment that would meet the 2C tar­get. As a re­sult, di­plo­mats, fear­ing that an­other failed at­tempt to reach a global ac­cord could dis­credit the en­tire ne­go­ti­at­ing process, have rescaled their am­bi­tions.

In par­tic­u­lar, ef­forts to set strict lim­its on emis­sions are qui­etly be­ing dropped. The fo­cus is no longer on what is en­vi­ron­men­tally de­sir­able or on the mea­sures needed to keep cli­mate change in check; rather, it is on what is po­lit­i­cally fea­si­ble – the pos­si­bil­i­ties and con­straints of the ne­go­ti­at­ing process, es­pe­cially with a view to se­cur­ing broad par­tic­i­pa­tion. Given the slow pace of progress since the first UN cli­mate-change sum­mit in 1995, any agree­ment that in­volves all mem­bers of the Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change will be hailed as a his­toric suc­cess.

That is why, as world lead­ers and en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ters pre­pare to at­tend the cli­mate-change con­fer­ence in Paris in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber, per­suad­ing all ma­jor emit­ters to com­mit to am­bi­tious and legally bind­ing emis­sions re­duc­tions is no longer con­sid­ered re­al­is­tic. The world’s largest pol­luters – es­pe­cially China, In­dia, and the United States – have made it clear that they alone will de­cide what mea­sures they will take. Hav­ing de­clared their uni­lat­eral tar­gets, they are un­likely to en­gage in fur­ther mul­ti­lat­eral ne­go­ti­a­tions.

To be sure, few di­plo­mats would state this so bluntly. Do­ing so would ac­knowl­edge the fail­ure of the last 20 years of UN cli­mate pol­icy. In­stead, they tend to frame the bot­tom-up ap­proach not as a break with the top-down par­a­digm, but as a prag­matic sup­ple­ment that ac­com­mo­dates ma­jor emit­ters and creates a frame­work for the cli­mate ini­tia­tives of sub-na­tional ac­tors, such as large cities and com­pa­nies.

But the truth is that the top-down ap­proach is al­ready be­ing dis­carded. Its defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic, af­ter all, is not the po­lit­i­cal arena in which an agree­ment will be struck (the UN sys­tem); it is the over­ar­ch­ing pol­icy goal (avoid­ing dan­ger­ous cli­mate change). And it is al­ready clear that the ne­go­ti­a­tions in Paris will fail to de­liver on the 2C tar­get es­tab­lished in 2010 – or on any other strictly bind­ing thresh­old.

When the con­tri­bu­tions of the more than 160 coun­tries that have sub­mit­ted their vol­un­tary mit­i­ga­tion com­mit­ments – the so-called “in­tended na­tion­ally de­ter­mined con­tri­bu­tions” – are added up, the scale of the fail­ure be­comes ev­i­dent. Even if all coun­tries rig­or­ously ad­here to their pledges, the world is on track for a tem­per­a­ture in­crease of at least 3C.

In­deed, the stated goal of the Paris agree­ment will be to try to “keep the 2C tar­get within reach.” Di­plo­mats plan to in­clude “ratch­et­ing-up mech­a­nisms” that al­low for a grad­ual in­crease in as­pi­ra­tion. But if history is any guide, such mech­a­nisms are un­likely to be used in the next ten years; their main func­tion is to put a pos­i­tive spin on a dis­ap­point­ing out­come and keep hopes of more am­bi­tious poli­cies alive.

Nonethe­less, there is rea­son for op­ti­mism: prag­ma­tism is prov­ing more pow­er­ful than ide­al­ism. Af­ter more than a decade of at­tempts to es­tab­lish strict lim­its on emis­sions, the top-down ap­proach has clearly failed to de­liver. The quiet adop­tion of a bot­tom-up ap­proach is a tacit ad­mis­sion that coun­tries can­not be forced to abide by a strict, cen­tralised regime, even if it is based on sci­en­tific ev­i­dence.

The adop­tion of vol­un­tary mea­sures has al­ready sparked progress, most no­tably the co­or­di­nated com­mit­ments by the US and China. Be­cause the bot­tom-up ap­proach re­spects the es­tab­lished ways sov­er­eign coun­tries act on the in­ter­na­tional stage, it has the po­ten­tial to cre­ate pos­i­tive mo­men­tum. Most gov­ern­ments pri­ori­tise po­lit­i­cal sur­vival and short-term eco­nomic suc­cess; they will con­trib­ute to global cli­mate ac­tion only if they know that their main com­peti­tors are do­ing so as well.

On bal­ance, then, the emer­gence of a bot­tom-up ap­proach in the fight against cli­mate change is an im­por­tant step for­ward. A world that is 3C warmer may be far from ideal. But it is bet­ter than a world in which cli­mate change has spi­raled out of con­trol.

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