A coalition of the willing

As climate talks get under way in Bonn, Thomas Hale and Scott Moore call for a radical new approach to cutting emissions that sidesteps intergovernmental deadlock and unites eager players, from Wal-Mart to city halls.

What do California, the European Union, Wal-Mart, the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection and the reader of this article have in common? They, not nation states, are now the frontline in the struggle to make the climate safe for future generations.

Intergovernmental efforts to limit the gases that cause climate change have all but failed. After the December 2009 Copenhagen summit, it’s hard to see how major emitters will soon agree on mutual emissions reductions sufficiently ambitious to prevent significant changes to Earth’s climate.

This is because international negotiations depend on countries – and the two largest emitters in particular, the United States and China. Climate-change legislation in the US, widely perceived as a prerequisite to a global agreement, remains trapped in a dysfunctional Senate. At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party worries about the effects emissions cuts would have on economic growth and social stability. While it has pledged to reduce the intensity of China’s emissions, the government has yet to commit to internationally verifiable reductions. Each country wants the other to move first, but with gridlock in Washington and Beijing, the world cannot expect a global climate agreement any time soon.

But this need not mean resigning ourselves to rising sea levels, declining agricultural yields and other dangers of climate change. Nor need we wring our hands at the recalcitrance of the “G2”. We can make second-best – but still worthwhile – progress toward mitigating climate change without a multilateral treaty. What we need now is a coalition of the willing to act where the intergovernmental process has failed.

This coalition would include all parties who want to reduce greenhouse gases – countries, certainly, but also regions, provinces, states, cities and towns. It should also include cross-border networks of domestic governmental agencies, like environmental regulators and transportation officials, as well as private organisations ranging from corporations to civil-society groups. Individual citizens, too, must be given a role. Together, these actors would represent an enormous share of the world’s population and economy.

The building blocks of this coalition – really, a coalition of coalitions – already exist. One of the few bright spots during the Copenhagen negotiations was the announcement of the “R20”, a coalition of 20 of the world’s largest cities and regions, including California and Paris, to pursue aggressive emissions reductions, even in the absence of national policies. Many of the world’s largest multinational corporations, including Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart, are formulating ambitious plans to reduce their carbon footprints. And consumer demand for low-carbon products is growing; Tesco, one of Britain’s largest retailers, plans to introduce a carbon-footprint labelling system on all of its products.

Fighting climate change through coalitions like these is inevitably messier, more difficult to coordinate and less precise than a global treaty. But this reflects the realities of climate change. Although, as a process, climate change is global, its effects will vary widely from place to place. It is inevitable that the peoples of the world will weigh the costs and benefits of climate-change mitigation according to their own interests, values and preferences. This must be recognised at the international level.

How? First, top political leaders should use their bully pulpits to summon all willing parties into a global coalition for the climate. Only the heads of state of the G20, for example, have the standing to convene a coalition vast enough to make an appreciable difference. The idea should then be sanctioned and supported by multilateral bodies, especially the United Nations. Such support need not be equivalent to abandoning the global-treaty process; it would instead only recognise that an effective global treaty is years away and that the best way forward at this point is to build coalitions. The European Union, which was marginalised at Copenhagen, should lead the way with diplomatic and financial support in order to regain credibility as a global environmental superpower.

The various participants in climate coalitions should be prepared to use a number of tools to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Governments can act aggressively by following the lead of Britain, California and others and cap emissions even in the absence of global or national agreements. A “mini-lateral” agreement between, say, the EU and prominent developing countries like India and Brazil, would reinforce these efforts. Similarly, government policy and civil-society pressure should encourage voluntary regulation and individual action by corporations, cities and citizens to reduce emissions.

The climate coalition should use both carrots and sticks to advance emissions reductions. Peer-to-peer networks of firms, regulators, civil society groups and individuals can develop and disseminate best practices for reducing emissions, thus making reductions more efficient. Technology-transfer regimes, such as those used successfully under the Montreal Protocol to reduce ozone-depleting chemicals, can help spread the use of clean technology.

In addition to these positive incentives, coalition members can adopt various measures to pressure climate laggards to increase their standards and to punish coalition members that break their commitments. Many consumers and investors, including government procurers and pension funds, already direct their money to companies that have proactive climate policies. These programmes should be strengthened and expanded. Even more forceful would be targeted sanctions against climate laggards, currently under consideration in the US and Europe. While it remains unclear exactly how such rules would interact with global trade laws, it seems likely such “carbon sanctions” would be allowed as long they were applied in a non-discriminatory fashion. These sanctions would be most fair and effective if they could discriminate on a sub-national basis, for example on a regional or even company level.

The prospects for global agreement on climate change look bleak. But none of the great transformations in world history – industry, democratisation, communications – were achieved by international treaty alone. Rather, patterns of innovation have spread across the world in manifold ways. The same approach can work for fighting climate change. Building coalitions of the willing can allow individuals, societies and organisations around the world to move toward tackling the greatest challenge of our time.

Scott Moore is a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute. Thomas Hale is a PhD candidate in the department of politics at Princeton University.

Homepage image from Greens Climate

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