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.

How about this as a headline outcome from the Addis FFD summit?

Here’s a conundrum if you like riddles: how on earth is next summer’s Finance For Development summit in Addis Ababa supposed to take account of the vexed issue of reform of international financial institutions?

On one hand, the issue is almost impossible for the summit to ignore. IFI reform is a key ‘systemic issue’ in financing for development, and one that figures prominently in the Monterrey Consensus that emerged from the first FFD summit over a decade ago.

On the other hand, though, what exactly can governments say about the issue? An IMF reform package has already been agreed, after all – the problem is that it’s logjammed in the US Congress, and the results of the midterm elections have done nothing whatsoever to change that.

But what if, at Addis next July, European governments made a formal declaration that the next Managing Director of the IMF should be from a developing country – preferably, but not necessarily, matched by a declaration from the US that the next President of the World Bank should also be from the South? (Christine Lagarde’s five year term ends in July 2016; if Jim Kim also does a five year term, as Robert Zoellick did, then he would be due for replacement in July 2017.)

This declaration wouldn’t cost the EU (or US) any expenditure. It wouldn’t require approval by their legislatures. But it would send a real statement of seriousness about IFI reform by overturning the conventions of a European to run the Fund and an American to run the Bank.

Moreover, it would also be an outcome from the summit that would lead the front page of the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal the following day – something that wouldn’t happen if the key summit outcome is (say) better targeting of ODA, or a new investment facility of some sort.

The key likely objection to the idea is that it would be at odds with the idea of merit-based appointments. I take that objection seriously, and especially agree that it would be essential to avoid the posts of IMF MD and World Bank President becoming subject to regions ‘taking turns’, as they already do on the post of UN Secretary-General.

But on the other hand, the EU and US already had positions saying they supported merit-based appointments before the last appointments to these jobs, and then promptly put forward Lagarde and Jim Kim – which didn’t exactly make them look open to breaking with tradition.

The political bottom line here is that IFI reform is one of the few issues within the post-2015 ‘means of implementation’ agenda that the BRICs actually care about. And the BRICs are already showing their frustration at the glacial pace of change with the creation of their new BRICs Bank.

If governments have nothing to say on IFI reform at Addis, then there’s a real risk that it’ll look like they’re simply giving up on the reform agenda. But by sending a strong message about continued commitment to change in spite of the awkward squad on Capitol Hill, the EU and US could take a big step towards changing the difficult political mood on post-2015.

In post-2015, as in life – it’s safety first

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai is exceptional. She fearlessly brought the campaign for girls’ education to the centre of the world stage. There is a UN global initiative, former Prime Ministers are taking up the cause and it is an uncontested fact amongst policy makers, academics and practitioners alike that we cannot ‘do development’ unless boys and girls have equal and universal access to a quality education.

But, how do you teach a girl to read and write if she’s too scared to go to school for fear of being raped; or shot in the head for simply trying to claim the education she is due? How do you teach a boy the social and emotional skills he needs if the only lesson he learns is violent discipline and the streets are too dangerous for him to play?

Whilst Malala is unique, the violence committed against her is certainly not. Millions of children have suffered physical abuse in, or on route to, school. But it doesn’t end there. The places children should feel most safe are often the most dangerous. In the home and community children are being subjected to violence which impacts their physical and mental health with often permanent effects.

The problem is not limited to the Swat Valley or the gang ridden streets of San Salvador. The epidemic of violence against children is global and it thrives off inequality. No matter where you are in the world, if you are poor, marginalised or young, your vulnerability to violence is increased and your power to seek justice is reduced. In Nairobi’s largest informal settlement, Kibera, last week, I heard stories from children about unimaginable abuse and violence – like nine year old ‘Charles’, repeatedly raped by a neighbour who has evaded justice because of his influence in the community and with local officials, who he is able to pay off. Whilst each trauma was different, the common theme of impunity for the richer, older, more powerful perpetrators was common. Children in particular have limited access to and voice within justice systems, and their abuse and exploitation often goes unreported or is not investigated, leaving those who need most protection receiving the least. This cycle must be broken.

That every five minutes a child will die because of violence, as a new report from Unicef UK shows, is intolerable. The fact that this this has the potential to undo the vast progress we have seen in child survival in the last 20 years is inexcusable. Huge gains have been made since 2000 in keeping children alive to their fifth birthday, but these risk being offset by stubbornly high murder rates in adolescence. For example, in Brazil nearly 35,000 under-fives have been saved, but over the same period, more than 12,000 lives of adolescents were lost to homicide. Furthermore, child victims and survivors of violence have been left behind by global social and economic progress, with violence creating barriers to economic development. A survivor of violence in childhood is 60% more likely to be living in poverty than a neighbour who was not victimised.

As member states negotiate the successor to the Millennium Development Goals, we have an opportunity to redress this. Violence was not tackled by the MDGs and the most vulnerable, at highest risk, were left behind. In the post-2015 framework, a target to end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence and torture against children, with accompanying targets of access to justice and the rule of law, will help ensure we can finish the job of the MDGs and eliminate preventable child mortality and extreme poverty for good. In post-2015, as in life, we can follow the mantra of safety first.

But we don’t have to wait for the negotiations to finish before we act to end violence. The experience of Unicef’s work in many countries shows that there are effective strategies to prevent it – including providing support and services for children and their families, changing social norms through education and enforcing laws to keep children safe – that can be scaled up now. We need leaders to commit to doing this and to demonstrate the political will is there to facilitate the practical solutions. A global partnership of governments, international institutions and civil society, to build momentum on this crucial issue will help ensure the opportunity the post-2015 framework presents to turn the tide against violence isn’t lost.

We can’t rely on all children being heroes, to show remarkable courage, to defy the odds, to take the fight to the perpetrators of violence the way Malala did. They shouldn’t have to. They have a right to grow up free from fear and violence. We need to start planning now for that world.

The political deal on post-2015 ‘means of implementation’

The post-2015 agenda is at a turning point, with the intense discussions of the last year about Goals and targets giving way to a new focus on how the world will achieve the high ambitions set out in the draft Sustainable Development Goals.

Over the next eighteen months, we’ll see a veritable blizzard of summitry, including a critical OECD meeting looking at the definition of aid this December, a major summit on financing for development in Addis Ababa next July, the key final decision moment on the shape of the new Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015, a make-or-break climate summit and a WTO trade ministerial in December 2015, and high-potential summits of the G7/G8 in Germany, and the G20 in Turkey.

All of these moments have the potential to yield elements of a global political deal on ‘means of implementation’ for the post-2015 agenda. But what are the options for those elements – and which of them offer the highest potential in terms of development impact and political achievability?

These are the questions I address in a new paper, commissioned by the UN Foundation, and published today as a working draft ahead of next week’s UN General Assembly and climate summit, and in advance of a final version in October.

It includes both a 10 point ‘straw man’ package of measures on means of implementation that ranges from ODA, domestic resource mobilisation, and the role of the private sector through to trade, sustainability, and transparency; and a long-list of potential outcomes and asks – in each case with a brief discussion of the political and developmental pros and cons.

Ending poverty through climate action in the Post-2015 development agenda

The post-2015 development agenda offers an extraordinary opportunity to tackle the world’s two most pressing challenges—poverty and climate change. A recent report from the Center for American Progress outlines a practical strategy for policymakers to ensure the new framework tackles both.

While it is sometimes tempting to despair that countries around the world are incapable of crafting multilateral solutions that are equal to the world’s most pressing challenges, there are tremendous opportunities for international agreements to bring about real change and accelerate progress.

In 2015, a pair of international summits – one to agree on a set of sustainable development goals, the other a new climate agreement – present a tremendous opportunity. These efforts can and should complement one another.

Where countries failed to fully integrating environmental concerns into the Millennium Development Goals, they have an unprecedented opportunity now to ensure that the new goals complement and mutually enforce global development and climate solutions.

In a new report from the Center for American Progress, a couple of colleagues and I outline specific, measurable targets to be incorporated into future development goals. These targets focus on specific actions that fight poverty and reduce the catastrophic effects of climate change, and support sustainable agriculture and food security, economic growth and infrastructure, sustainable energy, ecosystems, and healthy lives.

If adopted as part of the post-2015 development agenda, these targets would help drive investments and sensible actions by local and national governments, multilateral development banks, international organizations, and the private sector to end poverty and build a more resilient and sustainable future for generations to come.

What’s wrong with development agencies

Here’s John Kay, writing about the corporate cultures of Oxford University and the Co-operative Bank in the UK – but his description also applies 100% to more than a few development agencies (especially, perhaps, some of those in the UN system)…

Multiple layers of authority overlap both horizontally (different people and committees engage with the same issue) and vertically (many decisions are liable to review by some other body). The lack of focus in decision making results in an absence of executive authority; while professional management is subject to random amateur interference. In consequence, able people are not easily attracted to management roles; and so the amateurs view the professionals with often justified and frequently reciprocated contempt.

With no defined power structure, the vacuum is filled by people who turn non-executive roles into a near full-time occupation. Many are well intentioned though some are obsessed with a single issue: fair trade, say, or diversity or equality. Others promote a sectional interest, which may simply be their own. Petty politicians enjoy the feeling of being at the centre and jostle for power; the power they seek is not the ability to get things done but the negative power that comes from “no decision without me”. Secrecy about matters of no significance bolsters their sense of self-importance.

When non-executives enjoy power without responsibility, the corollary is that executives suffer responsibility without power. The organisation cannot pursue a consistent or coherent strategy, and may find it difficult to take any decisions at all.

The chaotic process is vigorously defended by claims of democratic legitimacy, and by reference to the traditions and distinctive values of the organisation. But the democracy is a sham, and the values and traditions – admirable if different in the Co-op and Oxford – encourage a tendency to self-congratulation immune to deficiencies in current performance. The proud history also leads people mistakenly to blame organisational incapacity to adapt on current individuals rather than inherited systems and structures.

Climate tipping points – a quick guide

Yesterday’s news that we now appear to be on course for the unstoppable and irreversible loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) – the largest ice body in the world (for now, anyway) – means that we’re now probably past two key climate tipping points, the other being the loss of summer Arctic sea ice. So this is probably a good time to post a quick overview of all of the main climate tipping points: if you’re not familiar with this list, you should be…

Below is a quick guide, adapted from a chapter by Exeter University’s Tim Lenton in his and Tim O’Riordan’s book on the same subject. The book was published last year; as you can see, scientific consensus at the time was that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet “appears to be further from a tipping point than its Greenland counterpart”. So much for that estimate.

  • Arctic sea ice loss underwent a new record summer loss of area in 2012, breaking the previous record of 2007, and now covers only half the area of the late 1970s when satellites first began monitoring it. Current projections suggest we’re looking at complete loss of Arctic summer sea ice within decades. Already, the changing ice cover is changing air circulation patterns, and leading to cold winter extremes in Europe and North America.
  • The Greenland ice sheet may be nearing a tipping point beyond which it is committed to shrink; here too, the summer of 2012 saw record melting. Ice loss would probably take place over centuries, so this form of change wouldn’t be abrupt – but it might well be irreversible, and could ultimately lead to 7 metres of sea level rise, including up to half a metre this century.
  • The West Antarctic ice sheet appears to be further from a tipping point than its Greenland counterpart, but has the potential for more rapid change, and hence bigger impacts in the near term. If warming exceeds 4º Celsius, the current best guess is that the West Antarctic ice sheet is ‘more likely than not’ to collapse, causing sea level rise of 1 metre per century and 3-4 metres in total.
  • The Yedoma permafrost in Siberia contains massive amounts of carbon – potentially up to 500 billion tonnes of it, about the same as has been emitted by human activity since the start of the industrial revolution. If decomposition inside the permafrost starts to generate enough heat, all of the permafrost could tip into irreversible, self-sustaining collapse, generating a “runaway positive feedback” with emissions of 2-3 billion tonnes of carbon a year, or about a third of current fossil fuel emissions. The current best guess is that this would not happen before regional warming of 9º Celsius, but that could be closer than we think: in 2007, for instance, Arctic surface temperatures jumped 3º Celsius.
  • Ocean methane hydrates are thought to store up to 2,000 billion tonnes of carbon under the seabed. As the deep ocean warms, this frozen reservoir of methane could conceivably melt, causing an abrupt, massive release of the gas – which is four times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. This is probably at the least likely end of the spectrum, but the impacts if it happened would be extreme.
  • The Himalayan glaciers could lose much of their mass over the coming century, with the change becoming self-amplifying as exposure of bare ground increases the amount of sunlight energy absorbed at the Earth’s surface rather than reflected back into space. Scientists are so far unsure as to whether a large-scale tipping point could apply to this trend.
  • The Amazon rainforest experienced severe droughts in both 2005 and 2010 – in both cases, turning the forest into a source of carbon rather than a sink for absorbing it. If, as is currently happening, the dry season continues to lengthen, and droughts get more frequent and severe, then the rainforest could reach a tipping point, with up to 80% of trees dying off. Widespread dieback is expected at increases of over 4º Celsius, and could be committed to at much lower temperature increases – long before we notice it happening.
  • Western Canada’s boreal forest is currently suffering from an invasion of mountain pine beetle, leading to widespread dieback which has already turned the forest from a source to a sink. More widespread die-off could happen in future at global average warming of more than 3º Celsius, further amplifying global warming.
  • Tropical coral reefs are already experiencing bleaching as oceans warm up, and may be nearing a ‘point of no return’. Further risks come from the increasing acidification of the oceans, which could see up to 70% of corals in corrosive water by the end of this century.
  • The Atlantic thermohaline circulation (THC) – in effect, a massive oceanic conveyer belt that drives the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift, and which helps keep northern Europe much warmer than it would otherwise be – could shut down altogether if enough freshwater dilutes the ocean’s salinity; current best guesses are that this could happen at global average warming of over 4º Celsius. A weakening THC could also drive an additional quarter metre of sea level rise along the north-eastern seaboard of the United States.
  • The Sahel and West African Monsoon has experienced rapid changes in the past, including a catastrophic drought that lasted from the late 1960s through to the 1980s, and could be disrupted anew by changes to the THC. The Indian Summer Monsoon, meanwhile, is already being disrupted and rice harvests damaged, in particular by the cloud of brown haze that now sits semi-permanently over the Indian sub-continent.

Of course, the really big question in each case is exactly where the tipping points lie, and what level of temperature increase might push us over the threshold. Some research suggests that warning of 1º Celsius over the average temperature of the 1980s and 1990s would be dangerous; other recent work suggests that 4º could be where the danger zone begins.

But again, note that the best guess just one year ago was that it would take 4º of warming to cause the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to collapse; in the event, current warming of 0.7º above pre-industrial levels seems to have been enough to push us over the edge. It’s a salutary reminder of how little we know about climate tipping points – and hence just how risky and high stakes a situation we’re in.

And in all scenarios, the key point is that these kinds of temperature increases are exactly where our current trajectory is headed: current policies have us on track for 3.6-5.3 degrees Celsius of warming, according to the IEA. In the worst case scenario, Tim Lenton observes, we could slide into

“…’domino dynamics’, in which tipping one element of the Earth system significantly increases the probability of tipping another, and so on … on several occasions in the past, the planet was radically reorganized without there being any sign of a particularly large forcing perturbation.”

Wondering what you can do in the face of such relentlessly gloomy news? Get hold of any policymaker you can and ask them whether they support a binding global carbon budget, and fair – i.e. equal per capita – shares of it for all the world’s people. Ask whichever NGO you support whether they’re calling for the same thing at the Paris summit next year. And don’t take any shit from anyone about how technology and voluntary action are going to do the business without anyone having to take any tough decisions.

(See also this companion post, also published here today, for a slightly different take on the loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.)