Most climate action has little to do with the UN process

Desertec v4This post is by Ben Caldecott, Green Alliance trustee, associate fellow of Bright Blue and author of Green and responsible conservatism: embedding sustainability and long-termism within the UK economy.

The build up to the UN climate change conference in Paris this December began at Durban in 2011, when negotiators agreed to deliver a ‘new and universal greenhouse gas reduction protocol, legal instrument, or other outcome with legal force by 2015 for the period beyond 2020’. Paris is the last opportunity to secure such an agreement.

This is inadequate progress given the urgency of climate change. But the good news is that action on climate change is only partly influenced by the negotiations; most of the on-the-ground action has very little to do with the UN process. It is largely determined by national policies and market innovation.

Since Copenhagen in 2009, which famously ended in acrimony, clean energy investment has exploded (US$1,462 billion since the start of 2010), the price of renewables has fallen dramatically (59 per cent for solar photovoltaics) and the world is now adding more capacity in renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined.

Why the centre right should want the best outcome at Paris
So regardless of whether a UN agreement is reached, clean technologies will continue to transform markets and disrupt traditional business models remarkably quickly. Nevertheless, an international deal still matters and the UK centre right should be helping to ensure the best possible outcome for some of the following four reasons.

  1. The nature of climate change means that there is significant potential for ‘free riding’. To ensure all countries contribute their fair share (taking account of different levels of development) we need an international system able to measure, monitor and hold countries to account. The international process helps to keep countries ‘honest’ with respect to their emissions and progress towards targets. The UN process also involves the countries responsible for the vast majority of emissions.
  1. We need a way of setting levels of ambition and urgency, and keeping countries in regular contact on specific climate change issues.
  1. The international process enables ongoing technical collaboration and co-operation. The importance of this should not be underestimated.
  1. Some countries require international climate finance to reduce emissions and adapt to current and future climate change. There are also sources of emission reductions, such as preventing tropical deforestation, which require financial flows into those countries that can be partly mediated via the international process.

These practical reasons, rather than grander ideas about the importance of UN processes, are why we must be active, ambitious and vocal supporters of an agreement in Paris and beyond. While failure at Paris will not halt progress, it would slow it down, and this would harm UK interests and disproportionately impact least developed countries.

Too much faith has been put in UN negotiations
While recognising the importance of the UN process, we should also recognise the importance of bilateral and plurilateral action and be much more active in this respect. The UN process has significant weaknesses, not least the requirement to get universal support from all countries involved.

The NGOs and activists, and actually a large part of our own civil service, have placed too much faith, time and money in the UN negotiations. Doing things outside of the UN ‘track’ is seen as undermining the sanctity of that process. That is nonsense.

What key countries should have done long ago is to identify key sectors and then mobilise the right coalitions to reduce emissions from those sectors. Cement production, deforestation and coal-fired power generation are three such sectors, each incredibly important, accounting for five per cent, 15 per cent and 20 per cent of global emissions respectively. The top five countries account for 72 per cent of total global cement production, 47 per cent of deforestation and 77 per cent of coal capacity (Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, Stranded Assets Database, 2015).

These sector specific agreements would be complementary to the UN process, but could be separate from it. They would each involve the main countries responsible for the emissions being brought into a negotiation process and agreeing on timelines for closing down the least efficient power generation or industrial processes or stopping deforestation. Agreements would undoubtedly require developed countries to move more quickly than poorer ones and funds would be needed to support transitions.

Just one such agreement, say on phasing out sub-critical coal-fired power stations globally by 2030 would be ambitious but, if implemented, would almost certainly yield many more net emissions reductions than the entire UN process has so far.  The UK should take the lead on negotiating one such sectoral agreement by 2020: phasing out sub-critical coal-fired power stations by 2030 or a comprehensive and funded international deal to stop tropical forest deforestation would be potential options.

Front load aid to avoid counter-productive decisions
The government’s commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of the UK’s gross national income on aid is noble. Regardless of your exact views on whether this is a sensible commitment and whether it need be enshrined in UK law, it is important that these funds are now deployed cost effectively and in ways that support the sustainable, long term development of the poorest countries.

There is a strong case for front loading efforts to support sustainable development, to prevent irreversible and counter-productive decisions, such as the liquidation of virgin rainforest. One idea would be to partially front load some of the spending commitment into areas where it unquestionably makes sense to act sooner, rather than later. Vaccines, education, environment and climate adaptation might fit into this category. The government should explore how to front load 20-25 per cent of planned annual aid expenditure over the next 10-15 years into key initiatives in the short term to prevent irreversible losses or harm. Forests would be a good area for such an approach, in terms of livelihoods, climate change, irreversibility (once cut down, they are very hard to restore) and biodiversity. The mechanism for doing this could be bonds issued on the back of future aid commitments.

Sadly, environment, climate change and sustainability have languished near the bottom of DfID’s agenda, partly due to the fact that it is easier to measure other types of aid, such as the number of vaccinations given or amount of food relief delivered to disaster zones. The innumerable benefits of environment and climate change expenditure are less straightforwardly quantified. Unpicking these biases and embedding environment better in DfID’s work should be a priority for the centre right, as it can support both short and long term development objectives.

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