The multilateral zombie

Sick but not quite dead, the UN climate process stumbles on. Credible global strategies for reducing emissions must be readied for the moment the politics change, argues Alex Evans.

A year on from Copenhagen, things aren’t looking good. Immediately after the 2009 negotiations, some of the more optimistic members of the climate scene tried putting a brave face on the summit’s outcome, arguing that the Copenhagen Accord’s voluntary pledges wouldn’t leave the world so very far off course for limiting warming to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. Now, after a year to crunch the numbers properly, the more sobering reality is sinking in.

According to the International Energy Agency’s just-published 2010 World Energy Outlook, even a best case scenario, with full implementation of the Copenhagen pledges, would only take the world part of the way towards the emissions trajectory needed to keep warming below two degrees.

In a more realistic scenario – in which countries take what the IEA tactfully calls a “cautious” approach to their commitments – the outlook warns that it will be “all but impossible” to achieve the two-degree goal. Instead, emissions rise by 21% from 2008 to 2035, putting the world on course for greenhouse-gas concentrations of over 650 parts per million of carbon-dioxide equivalent and average warming of over 3.5 degrees.

So is the Cancún climate summit trying to tackle any of this?

If only. 

Back in early 2009, my colleague David Steven and I developed three scenarios on the global climate policy outlook, as part of a paper we prepared for the United Kingdom’s government. One of them was called “Multilateral Zombie”. It told a story in which “…while UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] negotiators kept the faith, it became increasingly clear to those outside the bubble that the multilateral climate process was now a zombie – staggering on, but never quite dying – just like the Doha trade round before it.”

In the approach to Cancún, the UNFCCC circus has – alas – increasingly resembled the zombie of our scenario. The engagement of heads of government, one of the few positive developments at Copenhagen, has dissipated. All the talk is of relatively “safe” technical issues, like fast-start financing or monitoring and reporting, while the big questions are swept under the carpet. A tacit low-ambition consensus between the United States and the BASIC countries – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – has become the central political reference point.

It’s a depressing picture, and many commentators are drawing the conclusion that, with binding targets and timetables so firmly off the table, it’s time to take a new look at voluntary, bottom-up, technology-led approaches.

Such approaches are worth a try, if used to tackle drivers of global warming that aren’t covered by the UNFCCC (like “black carbon”) or if they can help build trust between countries – indeed, in the post-Copenhagen analysis that David and I wrote for the Brookings Institution, a focus on “quick wins” was one of the suggestions that we made.

But it’s hard to find much reason to think that bottom-up, voluntary action can, on its own, get the world to climate stabilisation. Without binding emission targets, or some other form of carbon pricing, the only way clean technology costs will come down enough is through massive government subsidy – and it’s difficult to see US or European policymakers agreeing to massive new government spending programmes in the current fiscal environment.

Unfortunately, as I argued in a post on Global Dashboard back in June, there’s just no way around the fact that solving climate change “…will involve facing up to limits – and yes, that means quantifying them – and the equity implications of them.”

In other words, policymakers need to start talking seriously about how to share out the remaining “carbon space” in the atmosphere.

I have long thought that the only politically realistic way for negotiators to agree on how to share out a safe global-emissions budget will be to decide on some future date at which all countries converge on equal per-capita rights to the atmosphere (the “contraction and convergence” model). Ultimately, though, the question of which formula is used to share the emissions budget out is less important than defining the overall size of such a budget – and then making sure that enforcement mechanisms are robust enough to ensure the world stays within it.

But what the advocates of bottom-up approaches have right, of course, is that the political conditions for such radical action simply aren’t there at the moment – not in the United States and not in the emerging economies. So much so, in fact, that even the idea of setting a ceiling on total greenhouse-gas concentrations in the air is deemed too hot to discuss at UNFCCC summits, much less talk about an actual number for that ceiling.

So where does this leave us? Well, here are five thoughts:

First, whatever happens, let’s at least make sure we don’t mistake what’s possible for what’s necessary. Voluntary action is all very well, but it won’t solve climate change. The atmosphere doesn’t award marks for effort.

Second, recognise that delay makes political agreement harder, not easier. The global carbon budget that will lie at the heart of any future global deal on climate change is being used up a little more each day.The longer policymakers wait to talk about how to share it out, the smaller the cake that they must divide will be – and the more toxic the politics will become.

Third, remember that even if climate policy has stalled, other issues may open up new political space. In particular, if oil supplies tighten again as the global economy recovers – a scenario the International Energy Agency has consistently warned of – then the context for discussion of climate policy could change significantly.

Fourth, while climate change could help spur the world into resource nationalism and zero-sum competition, it could also do the opposite. As David and I argue in a paper we prepared for the US National Intelligence Council, which will be published by the Brookings Institution shortly:

“In Brussels, Beijing and Washington, opinion on climate change, and on larger questions of how to make globalisation more resilient, is far from homogenous. While there are constituencies in each capital that see international risks through a lens that assumes competition, there are opposing constituencies that understand climate change and other global threats as shared challenges that require joint responses.

“In this sense, the most fundamental battle over climate change may be less between different countries, or groups of them, than between two competing security paradigms with highly divergent assumptions, analyses and prescriptions.”

Finally, readiness to take advantage of political windows of opportunity is everything. One thing that can confidently be expected as greenhouse-gas concentrations head upwards is more extreme weather shocks. In cases where such shocks prove particularly resonant with the news media, a lot of political space will often open up – usually suddenly, and only briefly.

This raises the question of who will be ready to move into the space created each time such a shock happens. Companies preparing to market “geo-engineering” options are said to be gearing up for public-relations blitzes in the wake of future climate shocks. Are advocates of a comprehensive global climate deal preparing to play the same game?

Not yet. On the contrary, the agonisingly gradual experience of getting the Kyoto Protocol into force, coupled with the glacial pace of UNFCCC negotiations today, means that anyone who spends much time in or around the official climate process tends to become an ultra-incrementalist – firmly convinced that change only happens one step at a time.

That view may be true 90% of the time. But it’s in the remaining 10% that the real opportunities will lie.

So while prospects for Cancún may be gloomy, advocates of credible action on climate change shouldn’t be. On the contrary, now is the time to be developing concrete proposals on what it would take actually to solve the problem – that can sit on the shelf until the political space for them opens up.


Alex Evans is head of program, Resource Scarcity, Climate Change and Multilateralism at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University and co-editor of the foreign policy blog

Homepage image from UNFCCC shows John Ashe (centre), chairman of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.