9 take aways from COP21

Having attended COP21 as a member of the Ethiopian delegation, I’ve been meaning to write up a post with some take-aways and reflections on the outcome, and will still do so if/when I have a second – but in the meantime, here’s an excellent piece by Christian Hunt, reproduced here with his permission.

My take on the Paris climate agreement is that it’s inadequate. But I think it’s still a really good thing.

Others have been less equivocal, arguing that the Paris agreement is either the best thing since sliced bread, or a disaster and a betrayal of real action on climate change.

So over the past few days I’ve been jotting down some thoughts to help me figure out how I feel about the agreement, and why – mental work in progress, that I’ll share in case it helps you organise your thoughts, or prompts you to email me and tell me I’m wrong.

So here goes:

1) Some preliminary analysis says the agreement, if implemented, would put us on track to 2.7°C by 2100. (Or even lower, with a ratchet mechanism.) I remember when similar analysis said we were on track to between 4 and 6°C, depending on which report you pick. Parking the obvious caveats, isn’t that a good thing?

2) Straight back to those caveats – “if implemented” is a huge one. In fact, it’s kind of the same caveat that existed before the agreement was done – “if we do something about this”. So obviously, the agreement in and of itself doesn’t fix the climate problem. It will require a huge effort from civil society to make the words of the agreement real, in political cost, in infrastructure, in financial decisions. And it will require more moments in the future when ambition is increased again, and again.

3) So let’s not get too hung up on the 1.5/2 degrees targets, and whether they’re realistic, or whether the deal does enough to secure them. My honest answers are: a) We don’t know if they’re realistic – it depends on how you define realistic, there’s a range of opinion, but we know they’re really tough. b) No global agreement will ever do enough to achieve them unless it is supported under the surface by an iceberg of agitation, campaigning and radical shifts in the global economy that still need to be fought for and built, and c) We should just stop obsessing about targets anyway and start arguing for and enabling the end of fossil fuel use as quickly as possible. Oh, and d) The 1.5 target came about because of advocacy by countries that face being literally wiped off the map by climate change, so let’s be a little careful about dismissing it out of hand, or as a way to buy off poor countries, because that strikes me as quite a disempowering and in some ways arrogant thing for those of us in richer countries to argue.

4) So congratulations civil society, we still have a massive job to do. But I would cautiously venture that having every government in the world committed to try and limit warming to 1.5°C is a great lever to move them with – a lever that gives more traction.

5) In fact, let’s quote what I see as the best part of Bill McKibben’s reaction to this – “What, you want to build a pipeline? I thought you were going to go for 1.5 degrees. You want to frack? Are you fracking kidding me? You said you were going for 2 degrees at the absolute worst.” On decarbonisation, if governments are sincere in what they say, let’s help them achieve their goals. If they’re insincere, let’s bust the hypocrisy.

6) Decarbonising our energy system, then our society, then reworking the relationship human society has to resource use and sustainability remain big, hard, daunting problems. Agreement in Paris doesn’t change the calculus of climate change.

7) In reflecting the way the world is arranged, the Paris agreement is an unfair deal for the world’s poor. Equity needs to be a much bigger part of the mainstream climate debate. One positive thing might be the emergence of strong campaigns for climate reparations, led from the global South and with the support of northern allies. (Or whatever the right approach is to opening up that space.)

8) Paris produced a treaty-level agreement, but was a document born of compromise. So while the ‘wrapper’ is binding, different parts of it have different levels of binding-ness. But crucially, important parts of it are actually binding – for example, the verification of what a country’s emissions are, a process to increase ambition over time, a long-term goal for emissions reductions. These are tangible things. So it’s not just nice words, or symbolic. (As an aside, the era of binding multilateral treaties is probably over, a friend pointed out to me the other day, because these days it’s more complicated than just getting the US and the USSR to agree to something. Not that it was ever necessarily simple.)

8) NGO messaging that says this is a “historic deal that will fix all our problems” can be annoying, I agree, because it sounds a lot like “job done”. But we should remember that we (in civil society) are not the target audience for that messaging. Such messaging is directed at the general public (to try and create a narrative shift that can enthuse people and build support for further climate action), or at investors (to increase investment risk, as with the divestment movement). It’s probably also directed at supporters (to make them happy about the impact ‘their’ NGO is having). Luckily, we can just ignore it, although I agree some of the crasser examples need to be called out.

9) In summary, if anyone has a good argument for why we’re in a worse place with a climate agreement produced in Paris than we were before, I’d be really interested to hear it. I accept that I may have drunk the kool-aid… But I don’t think so. Paris is the beginning of a process – a means to an end, not an end in itself. Civil society has played a huge role in getting us to this point, and will have a similarly important role to play in what comes next.

(Christian Hunt is a freelance writer, researcher and consultant, focusing on climate, energy, peace and conflict. He was founding editor of the website Carbon Brief, previously worked for Greenpeace and the Public Interest Research Centre, and is a co-director of the infidelity offsetting company Cheat Neutral. He lives in Minneapolis, USA.)

The coolest thing I’ve been involved in (in a very small way) this year

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Ever since I was very small, I’ve always just been crazy, crazy, crazy about space. I still miss a particular book about space that I had as a kid and which I lost somewhere between then and now. My favourite dressing up stuff when I was little was an astronaut suit; my favourite toy, a tent done up like an Apollo capsule. And I never really grew out of it.

Even today, space films have the capacity to affect me like nothing else. Emma always chuckles at me because while there may be few things in life you can really count on, one of them is the fact that I will *invariably* cry at the ending of ‘Contact’ (which I must have watched more times than any other movie). Or at the ending of ‘Gravity’. Or for that matter at the Imax film about how shuttle astronauts repaired Hubble. Anything with stars in it, really.

Then, four years ago, there was a point when I was the writer for the UN’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability. In many ways it was a deeply frustrating experience, and there was one particularly dispiriting morning, when I was in a windowless room in the UN’s North Lawn Building in NYC, listening to one member of the Panel in particular block one thing after another.

And the thing was that I’d just been reading this book called The Overview Effect, which was all about how the view of earth from space changed astronauts’ perspectives for ever, and made them think in terms of a larger, truly global ‘us’.

And all I could think of, as I listened to all these politicians, was: if only you were all in space, this would be such a different conversation. And as I sat there, feeling mutinous, I tuned out of the conversation for a few minutes and scribbled off this blog post. Serendipitously, I got a lovely email just a few hours later from Frank White, the author of the Overview Effect, to say hello – and amid all the disillusionment, his email kept me going through the rest of the meeting.

But that wasn’t the end of the serendipities. Earlier this year, in the spring I think, I was over in NYC for a work trip. It was my first night in town, I was jetlagged to hell, and I was grabbing a quick bite to eat in my hotel’s bar before crashing out. Sitting next to me at the bar was another guy eating on his own, and I just happened to glance in his direction as he opened his wallet – and I saw that he had several of the same business cards in there, all with the NASA logo on them.

So obviously I surmised that they were his cards, and my eyes widened, and I heard myself say, “excuse me, do you work at NASA?!” And it turns out that he was called Matt Pearce, that he did indeed work at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies – and off we went.

I talked about how much I adored Contact; it turned out he’d actually done some work on it. I told him about that Panel meeting four years ago; he got it 100%. And then we got to talking about this year’s big summit moments, and the Sustainable Development Goals and COP21 and all the rest of it, and somewhere along the way we hit upon an idea.

We may not be able to bring summits to space, we figured, but we can at least bring space, and the overview perspective it gives, to summits. What would it be like, we wondered, if a UN summit were to open with a live uplink to the International Space Station – talking to the astronauts as they look down at us, with them explaining to us how irrelevant borders look, and how fragile the earth seems, from all the way up there?

So eventually we wrapped it up for the evening, but not before we’d swapped business cards and I’d promised to put him in touch with friends in the UN Secretary-General’s office, whom he’d then put in touch with people at NASA HQ. And we both did, and later I gathered that a meeting had duly gone ahead, and that was about as much as I heard about it – until now, this week, here in Paris at COP21.

I have to say at this point that in Addis Ababa, where we live, Emma and I often make a point of watching the International Space Station as it goes overhead. (You can sign up for updates about when it’s due to fly over where you live here.) It never fails to send a shiver down my spine when I see it: it’s the third brightest object in the sky, and though it takes a full 6 minutes to cross from one horizon to the other, you really have the sense of it hurtling along; of the fact that this is an object travelling at 17,500 miles an hour.

And I especially love the fact that our two kids Isabel (5) and Kit (2) also totally get how awesome this is. Last time Isabel watched it with me, she dressed up in her snow suit because it’s the closest thing she has to a space suit. And on its very next orbit, one of the crew tweeted a picture of Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains from space. We tweeted him back to say hello. That was really great.

But it pales in comparison with having been one small link in a long and utterly serendipitous chain that resulted in this video being played at the COP21 climate summit. It’s a beautiful film, and I take my hat off to the people involved in making it. I have this big, silly smile on my face as I type this to think that, even if in a very circuitous and tangential way, I’ve been involved in a space mission. All the more so given that that mission is about the issue that I’ve spent the last 20 years or so working on. And, yes, before you ask, I’m also ever so slightly teary about it :-)

The Restorative Economy

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Over the past six months, I’ve been working with my friend and colleague Rich Gower on a report for Tearfund, the Christian development NGO, entitled The Restorative Economy: Completing our Unfinished Millennium Jubilee – and today, the report is finally published. Here’s the summary, and here’s the full report (we also have a comment piece on the Guardian today, which you’ll find here).

The process of writing this report has been especially close to my heart, and has left me at the end feeling that I want to devote much more of my energy to the massive task of movement building and values shifting that lies ahead of us. I’ve been working in and around the multilateral system for nearly a decade, and like many of my friends and colleagues in that world, have frequently felt acute frustration at the postage stamp-sized amount of political space that currently exists for solutions on the scale we need, both internationally and at home in the UK.

This report is an attempt to start thinking about what a new approach to that challenge might look like – across four chapters. The first one sets out a snapshot of where we are: in many ways a golden age for development, but one in which three huge challenges – environmental unsustainability, growing inequality, and the millions and millions of people still left behind as globalisation accelerates apace – remain ours to solve.

In chapter two, Rich and I set out the need for a different theory of influence. Many of us who work in the fight for development, justice, and sustainability have I think been feeling the limits of theories of change that rely primarily on ‘insider lobbying’. We take that here as our starting point for asking what an alternative approach might look like: one that places much more emphasis on how we build new grassroots coalitions, transform values, and tell each other much deeper stories about where we are, how we got here, where we might choose to go next, and who we really are.

Chapter three then explores the potential to discover such deeper stories in theology. All of us witnessed how the biblical idea of jubilee was able to animate a transformative civil society movement fifteen years ago, and proved powerfully resonant far beyond the church groups that formed Jubilee 2000’s core. As someone who worked in the UK government at the point when the 2005 Gleneagles summit concluded its debt relief deal, I still have to pinch myself when I remember that the average low income country’s debt fell from nearly 75% of its GDP in 2000 to just over 25% today – something that happened partly because of politicians, but much more fundamentally because of a coalition of millions of ordinary people, united by a shared story.

In this light, we argue, it’s important to remember that the once-a-generation jubilee festival described in the Old Testament was never about debt relief alone. When you go back to the original texts, as we did at some length in the course of researching this report, you find that they were also about environmental restoration. Ensuring that there was real attentiveness to enabling people living in poverty to meet their basic needs. And ensuring that concentrations of wealth did not build up from one generation to another. All three of these themes are of course fundamental to where we find ourselves today, in 2015. (And as friends working on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals will already have spotted, they’re central to that agenda too.)

So in a very real sense, the work we began in 2000 – our millennium jubilee – remains a work in progress. If we can complete it, then our kids will enjoy the kind of future that I know I want for my children – Isabel, 5, and Kit, 2. And in chapter 4, Rich and I set out what we think that would look like in practice.

We argue that it starts with the changes that all of us need to make in our own lives. This is partly because of the direct impact that such changes can have, of course, but we think the main issue here is something to do with the quality of intention that movements exemplify. Wherever movements not only demand but live out the change they want to see in the world, there’s a raw power there that can exert the kind of non-linear effect on politics that progressives so urgently want to see.

But ultimately the decision about the future we want has to be made by all of us collectively, as well as each of us individually. So chapter 4 ends with a ten big ideas for far-reaching policy changes of the kind that we think have this transformative power. The ideas cover a very broad waterfront – from reforming the financial system to global climate policy, and from how we use aid internationally to how our tax system works at home.

We don’t by any means think the proposals we set out are the last word on the subject. But if they can play even just a small part in catalysing a serious conversation, among all of us, about the choices we have in what we bequeath to our kids, then I think I speak for all of Tearfund’s fabulous advocacy team, Rich, and I when I say that we’ll be more than happy with the result.

The change we need in 10 words: A larger us. A longer future. A different good life.

Yesterday saw the launch of action/2015, the new global campaign on poverty, inequality, and climate change that will rally more than a thousand campaigning organisations around four crucial summit moments on these issues that will take place over the year ahead.

It’s the right campaign at the right time, because now more than ever, power is so distributed that only mass mobilisation and values change will be able to bring about the transformation needed – something I realised vividly during the profoundly disillusioning experience that was acting as the author of the UN High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability in 2011 (more on that sorry tale in the first couple of pages of this talk of mine from 2013).

But just what kind of values change is it that we need? I’ve written before, over at Eden 2.0, about the importance of stories for mobilising change – so what is it that those stories need to be about?

In our forthcoming report for Tearfund – working title The Unfinished Jubilee: Towards a Restorative EconomyRich Gower and I argue that three themes are especially important. You can sum them up in just ten words: A larger us. A longer future. A different good life.

1. A larger us

First up, we need to think less of “people like us” and more of “people – like us”. The whole sweep of human history is a story of expanding the size of the ‘we’ with which we empathise – from itinerant bands of hunter-gatherers to chiefdoms, from city states to kingdoms, and on to modern nation states and the staggeringly diverse communities of affinity and ethnicity in today’s globalised world. This expansion of empathy was perfectly captured by Martin Luther King in his 1963 ‘letter from Birmingham City jail’:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Above all, we need to get back to thinking in terms of the common good – and to do so at planetary scale, because in a world of global interdependence and planetary boundaries, only a 7 billion ‘us’ will do.

2. A longer future

Second, we need to face up to the fact that we’ve fallen out of the habit of thinking about the long term. Instead, our political leaders rarely have the luxury of thinking beyond the next election; our business leaders, the next financial quarter; our journalists, the next 24 hour news cycle. Scientist and author Danny Hillis observed in 1994 that:

When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 2000. Now, thirty years later, they still talk about what will happen by 2000. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life.

In particular, there has been a catastrophic implosion of the implicit covenant between past, current, and future generations. Today’s young generation in developed countries face a far more uncertain future than their parents, with unaffordable housing, costly higher education and student debt, and the end of ‘jobs for life’. And globally, the next generation faces a future of steadily increasing climate change and resource scarcity – unless decisive action is taken now to prevent that from happening.

3. A different good life

Third, recent years have seen a wealth of research challenging the idea that material consumption levels have much to do with happiness, at least beyond a certain point. Surveys that measure people’s subjective wellbeing routinely find that the correlation between life satisfaction and income starts to break beyond a certain level of GDP per capita.  Robert Kennedy recognised this nearly 50 years ago, when he observed that,

Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

So our stories need to focus on a broader idea of human flourishing, encompassing not only material security but also goals further up the ‘hierarchy of needs’ – such as friendship, family, a sense of connection, confidence, achievement, and the respect of others.

For more on the Tearfund project mentioned above, this presentation and this blog post, both from a couple of months ago, give an overview of some of the ideas we’re looking at.

The morning after the US-China climate announcement (updated)

Never have I seen such a wave of social media euphoria as the one that swept through my Twitter and Facebook feeds this time yesterday, as news broke about the US-China deal on climate change. But now that it’s the morning after, a few quick reflections.

China’s 2030 peak emissions date may be a big deal politically, but it won’t help the climate much. Since 2000, China’s carbon emissions from energy consumption have risen from 3 billion tonnes to around 9 billion tonnes today. They’ve tripled in ten years. China’s per capita emissions are now bigger than the EU’s (though still a long way off those of the US). So forgive me for not cracking open champagne at the news that China may be willing to taper off this unbelievable rate of emissions growth in another sixteen years. I admit that the 20% renewables target is a big deal – right now China’s at about 7% – but even this still leaves plenty of space for emissions to rise as energy demand and coal capacity continue to grow.

On the US side, too, all the hype about a 26-28% cut below 2005 levels by 2025 strikes me as overdone. Obama had already committed to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. He made that announcement five years ago, at Copenhagen. So 26-28% by 2025 does no more than more or less extrapolate that forward another five years (in fact, as Maarten Hajer at PBL points out, yesterday’s commitment is actually a little less ambitious than the forward curve implied by the 2009 promise) – there’s no actual ratcheting up of ambition.

The policies and measures unveiled in yesterday’s US-China announcement are awfully thin. There’s a “renewed commitment” to technology cooperation, with no funding numbers attached. Some stuff about a demonstration project on carbon capture and sequestration, which people have been talking about for over a decade now – it’s starting to sound like nuclear fusion. More cooperation on reducing HFC emissions, which do have massive global warming potential, but are incredibly easy for China to reduce – cynics like me think that China was actively inflating them so as to score Clean Development Mechanism permits, and is only now talking about a phase out because demand for CDM permits has collapsed along with EUETS prices. There’s a “climate smart low carbon cities initiative” which is basically a plan to convene a summit. And that’s pretty much it.

It’s kind of amazing how European progressives coo about anything China does on climate, but give Europe and the UK zero credit for the vastly more impressive lead they’ve taken on climate change. There was a particular classic of the genre yesterday in an extraordinary blog post on LabourList by Sunny Hundal that called the targets of the US (which work out at 16% below 1990 by 2025) and China (emissions can rise for another 16 years) “historic” while slating the EU (40% below 1990 by 2030) as – get this – “weak and lazy”.

Even more breathtakingly, the post was entitled “It’s time Labour joined the world in fighting climate change”, without at any point mentioning the small matter that Labour passed legislation – so far retained by the Conservatives – that (a) commits the UK to an 80% emissions reduction by 2050, (b) frames this in terms of a legally binding carbon budget, and (c) mandates an independent Climate Change Committee – of scientists, mark you, not politicians – to monitor progress and advise on whether the carbon budget needs to be tightened. (“Where is Britain? Nowhere”, the post concludes.) Would that the world followed Britain’s lead by setting a global carbon budget, and creating an independent monitoring body.

On which note – regular readers will have seen this coming several paragraphs ago – this is still, as it always has been, about the need for a global carbon budget, which (as usual) no-one is talking about. Instead, the UNFCCC process lumbers on, with its usual focus on something called “momentum” (whatever that is) as opposed to actual results. Not one person I know in the UN process expects Paris to agree a global plan for limiting warming to 2 degrees. Not one.

I was talking last night to a veteran climate negotiator from a developed country government, who observed that the climate priesthood has, for years, been having far too nice a time meeting up every six months for drinks and per diems. No one wants the party to end. There is no sense of urgency. No real deadline. She’s absolutely, 100% right. I started going to UN climate summits when I was a student. Next summer I’m 40. And the conversations in Warsaw last winter had basically not moved on since the first one I went to in the Hague a decade a half ago.

The only way this will ever end, she continued, is if policymakers give them six months to work out a solution, and make clear at the outset that at the end of this period, they can all piss off home. For good.  She’s right about that too. This is what they should agree, on a full global basis. I’m really not sure what else there is to say.

Updated: news is just emerging that there are some flickers of discussion of a carbon budget in the UN process. This has the potential to be a much bigger deal than the US-China announcement – more on this later.

The NGO campaign I’ve wanted to work on for the last 15 years (updated)

Tearfund has always been one of my favourite civil society organisations – above all because they have such a great track record of being a ‘pathfinder’ for other NGOs. They had climate change as a top campaigning priority long before most other development NGOs had really started to engage with it, for example. And now I think they’re about to do it again – with some deeply exciting work they’re doing on their future advocacy and campaigning strategy (which I’m involved in as a consultant).

Tearfund’s starting point in this work is a pretty radical one for a development NGO: a recognition of the basic paradox that the more the world succeeds on development, the more it fails on sustainability.

It’s a point we see most vividly in the fact that those countries deemed to have finished this process we call ‘development’ – developed countries – are also those with the highest per capita environmental impact. But you can see it as well in the fact that those countries that have seen most poverty reduction in recent decades are also the ones where emissions have risen fastest; China’s per capita emissions are now higher than those of the EU, for instance.

One purpose of their ‘Horizon’ project, then, is to start imagining what it would look like for us to move to an economy that was both just and sustainable – at all levels, from global policy right down to what it would mean for individual families. (You can read a background think piece that sets out some of our early thinking and ideas here – n.b. it really is just a think piece, and not in any way a statement of Tearfund policy.)

At the same time, the project also has a second purpose: exploring the new kinds of influence and change that will be needed to unlock change on this scale. Tearfund have recognised very candidly in their internal thinking that traditional ‘insider’ lobbying strategies will have limited power here. (Having spent the past ten years trying to support change in the multilateral system, I’ve reached a similar conclusion myself.)

Instead, alternative approaches will be needed – ones that propagate different norms, built new kinds of movement, create new coalitions for change, and use environmental, social, and economic shocks to fuller effect.

To help get this process underway, we ran a couple of fascinating conversations in London last week with various leading thinkers from government, think tanks, other NGOs, and business. Oxfam’s Duncan Green, who participated in one of the events, has written up a blog post with some reflections here. I distilled some of my own take-aways in a talk I gave at Tearfund after we’d run the two conversations, which you can read here.

Update: Green Economy Coalition’s Emily Benson, who took part in the other event from Duncan Green, has blogged her reflections on the conversation here.