Hitting Reboot – where next for climate after Copenhagen?

by | Dec 22, 2009

Today, the Brookings Institution publishes Hitting Reboot – a new paper from Alex and I reviewing climate policy in the aftermath of Copenhagen.

The picture is a bleak one – there’s no point pretending otherwise. Copenhagen took us only a little further than Bali, despite two years of negotiations. In some crucial aspects, we actually seem further away from a robust and comprehensive climate deal than we were in 2007.

Rather than hitting the brakes, however, we argue that deal-makers need to steer into the skid – upping the level of ambition. Climate isn’t a problem that can simply be put on pause.

Believe the science (and most still do), and you have little choice but to find new ways of bringing countries into some kind of binding agreement to control emissions.

That means finally getting countries to lay all their cards out on the table. Copenhagen failed, in part, because governments were far too slow to level with each other about what they really wanted. They spent two years pussy-footing around – and were then surprised when it proved difficult to engage in Copenhagen’s frenetic last few days.

How can we ever get to a deal when it’s considered perfectly acceptable to talk about rigorous (and often unachievable) targets for 2050 – but a faux pas to talk about the tough decisions and painful trade offs that need to be taken over the next few years if the climate is to be pushed onto any stabilisation trajectory?

That’s why much of our report is about getting back to the basics – taking 2ºC as a starting point, and then building up the blocks that are needed to seize the increasingly slim chance of making that aspiration a reality.

We’re not talking complex concepts – but the available carbon budget to 2050 (the size of the cake); current per capita emissions (which provide a starting point for the fair allocation of that cake); and a date for global peak emissions (how much of the cake we plan to consume now vs the portion we’ll save for later).

Read this admirable Project Catalyst analysis and you can understand in just ten minutes the gulf that exists between us and 2ºC – but, at the same time, realise that bridging the gap is far from being an insuperable challenge.

2ºC and a stabilisation target of 450ppm CO2e remain the very best results we can now hope for (which is why 1.5ºC and 350ppm has been such a diversion) – but unless we start talking in practical and urgent terms about how to achieve these goals, they will slip away much sooner than we think.

Leaders also need to initiate a much more adult conversation with their citizens about the level of climate risk societies are prepared to accept. Climate science is the bedrock of any global deal (and we make recommendations for how the integrity of the IPCC should be protected), but it can often only reveal considerable, and worrying, uncertainties about how the climate system will react as we continue to throw vast quantities of greenhouse gases at it.

Climate change is frightening not because we know exactly what is going to happen, and when – but because we don’t know when a particular part of it might start to run out of control.

Talking about – and trying to understand – risk is important, but we also need to invest much more in exploring and explaining potential solutions, making the low carbon economy tangible to the public, and helping amplify the signals from the future that will persuade investors to ramp up the race out of carbon.

We also need to join the dots between climate and other issues. Another resource spike is probably on its way – how can we start to address climate when limited space for emissions is just one of a number of scarcity issues (with energy, water, food and land completing the set).

These strategic resources will have a transformative impact on geopolitics over the next decade (for better or worse), changing economies, reshaping societies, and creating a raft of new security problems. We need to start building resilient societies – the subject of a much longer paper on risk and resilience that Brookings will publish next year.

Three of our recommendations explore how to start designing the institutional systems that are needed to underpin a rapid low carbon transformation.

Most tangibly, we call for an International Climate Performance Committee to be created and given the job of providing rapid, authoritative and independent analysis of the world’s chances of meeting a 2ºC target.

The ICPC would do a similar job on climate on climate as the Congressional Budget Office does for US spending commitments – able to report regularly on deficits, but also able to inject data into the thick of a negotiation.

If the ICPC was already up and running, negotiators would not rely on leaked documents to tell them what their commitments added up to – every country would have the same robust analysis on what emissions trajectory they could be expected to take the world onto.

We could also expect the ICPC to chip in at the end of January, when all countries are supposed to submit the targets and other commitments they are willing to contribute to 2ºC.

On targets, we  argue that rich countries should now commit to creating incentives for poor countries to volunteer to take on binding targets – even if these are set some way above current emissions levels. Carbon is a scarce resource, the right to emit is thus a valuable one. Developing countries are missing out on the chance to exploit their carbon allocations in the last few decades before these permits are squeezed down to near zero.

Finally, we discuss Ban Ki-Moon’s proposal to set up a High Level Panel on climate and give it our enthusiastic endorsement. The Panel offers an opportunity to ask some of the big questions that we have thus far shied away from addressing – starving the Copenhagen process of essential vision, content, and strategy.

The Panel, we argue, should be staffed by visionary thinkers (and some heads of state) from outside the climate priesthood. They should be mandated to:

– Explore the institutional framework needed to achieve the UNFCCC’s long term climate stabilisation objective.
– Examine how international collective action can increase resilience to a changing climate at global, regional, national, and local levels.
– Analyse the implications of climate change and climate change policy for other parts of the international system, including security, economic governance, international development, and human rights.
– Set out a high level strategy for increasing the effectiveness, coherence and credibility of the international system, with objectives for the short and medium term (e.g. to allow implementation of a post-2012 global deal; to put the world on a path to stabilisation by 2030).

    Here’s a summary of our twelve recommendations:

    – Focus debate on solutions by: (i) Rebuilding trust in the science; (ii) Initiating a more mature discussion of climate risk; (iii) Creating a common language to help deal-making (budgets, peak and per capita emissions).

    – Make the low carbon economy tangible by: (i) Pursuing quick wins alongside the post-Copenhagen process; (ii) Building low carbon into the fiscal tightening; (iii) Creating a new focus on disruptive technologies.

    – Connect the dots between climate and other global issues by: (i) Getting ready for the next resource price spike; (ii) Recognising and welcoming the inevitability of carbon tariffs; (iii) Focusing development strategies on building resilience.

    – Correct the institutional deficit on climate change by: (i) Setting up a new International Climate Performance Committee; (ii) Creating incentives for developing countries to take on binding targets; (iii) Using the forthcoming UN High Level Panel on Climate and Development as a key avenue for progress.


    • David Steven is a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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