A version of this post was first published by the New Statesman.
A new joint report from Green Alliance, WWF, Christian Aid, RSPB and Greenpeace believes we will have a global agreement on tackling climate change by the end of next year. If we do, it will be an exceptional event. Nations working together is no longer the fashionable way to deal with problems. The UN is looked upon as indecisive, the EU is seen as technocratic and even the United Kingdom is barely living up to its name. And yet the prime minister has just announced he will be heading to New York later this month to meet with other world leaders to discuss getting a global agreement. Why would he bother?
There has been some hesitancy from both sides of the political spectrum towards the prospect of the 2015 deal. Earlier in the year, the Fabian society produced a pamphlet calling for “a much greater focus on rebuilding democratic capacity rather than focusing on securing legislative change at a national and supranational level.”
Meanwhile, potential Conservative mayoral candidate Michael Liebreich has written in detail why he thinks past global deals have been a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. He believes an agreement will be made next year but, for him, it is a distraction from the bottom-up innovations already going on in the private sector.
Not a ‘one-off ‘
There’s a lot to agree with in this argument, particularly not seeing the negotiations as a ‘one-off game’ dictated by a central authority. It is true that decarbonisation doesn’t happen in rented soccer stadiums or badly lit conference centres, but on the ground, driven by investment in low carbon instead of high carbon.
However, these very real and exciting innovations in technology and financing are not separate from the international process but a part of it. It has been a virtuous circle: the technological deployment is accelerated by greater international co-operation and, in turn, the technological deployment makes a stronger agreement more likely. And so achieving a good deal matters, because, not despite of, the action we’ve seen on the ground. Through the frustration, we’ve learned pragmatism and possibility from past climate conferences and have a greater understanding of how top level action links to what actually happens on the ground.
Thankfully, that does still seem to be the attitude of the UK government which has published its own thoughts on why it thinks a global deal will happen and why it is in the UK’s interest.
US and China are ambitious for a deal
Meanwhile, as is clear to everyone involved now, the US and Chinese administrations are in the most ambitious place they’ve ever been and are determined to deliver something in the Paris talks in just over a year’s time. For my money, that is why the Prime Minister is sidestepping the constitutional uncertainties of this country and going to Ban Ki Moon’s New York summit. Just as it seems the golden age of international diplomacy may be behind us, climate change may show the world it’s still possible for us to work together.
But not just any agreement will do. We need more than a piece of paper and a nice photo opp by the Eiffel tower. To bring about real change, an agreement has to do several things, from linking climate action with developing the world’s poorest economies to dealing with deforestation, and our report is clear how they can be achieved. However, there are two essential elements worth highlighting that will help countries of the world to act together for the long term.
First, governments and businesses need to trust that countries will deliver on the promises made in the agreement, which means it must have a clear legal basis that works for different national constitutions.
Second, nations need to agree to a long term goal for 2050. Which means ensuring the agreement enables ambitions to be ramped up in the future, ambition ready to be lifted every five years. This is because carbon targets will need to be revised as the science gets clearer; and, as confidence in the agreement grows, and countries implement low carbon strategies, there will be more evidence of the social and economic benefits of action and greater confidence amongst investors.
We all have good reasons to care
We need our political leaders to show us they are still capable of acting beyond their own borders and tackling the big issues. On 23 September the prime minister will need to show that nations can work together, make progress and set out the terms of success for the climate change negotiations being held in Paris next year. Whether as citizens or investors, we all have good reasons to care about the outcome.
With an agreement in place, everyone has a mandate to act and the virtuous circle can speed up, with both the bottom up and the top down processes pulling each other along further and faster towards real progress on tackling climate change.
[This is a revised version of the article first posted].