The best news on climate change for months. Maybe.

by | Jan 4, 2010

And now for the good news on climate change. 

First, an excerpt from the New York Times yesterday.  We join Bono, a contributing columnist at the Times, as he’s setting out a list of 10 ideas that might make the next 10 years “more interesting, healthy or civil” – ideas which “have little in common with one another except that I am seized by each, and moved by its potential to change our world.” Here’s number 3:

In the recent climate talks in Copenhagen, it was no surprise that developing countries objected to taking their feet off the pedal of their own carbon-paced growth; after all, they played little part in building the congested eight-lane highway of a problem that the world faces now.

One smart suggestion I’ve heard, sort of a riff on cap-and-trade, is that each person has an equal right to pollute and that there might somehow be a way to monetize this. By this accounting, your average Ethiopian can sell her underpolluting ways (people in Ethiopia emit about 0.1 ton of carbon a year) to the average American (about 20 tons a year) and use the proceeds to deal with the effects of climate change (like drought), educate her kids and send them to university. (Trust in capitalism — we’ll find a way.) As a mild green, I like the idea, though it’s controversial in militant, khaki-green quarters. And yes, real economists would prefer to tax carbon at the source, but so far the political will is not there. If it were me, I’d close the deal before the rising nations want it backdated.

Bono just endorsed contraction and convergence – a big deal, for three reasons.

First, it’s clear he gets the key things that you have to get. He gets that the real potential is not in everyone having equal per capita emissions, but in everyone having equal per capita emission entitlements – the difference being, as he says, that with the latter, trading enables low emitters to profit from it while still staying within the overall emissions budget. (Fuller explanation of that point here.)

He also gets, consequently, that we’re talking about a potentially very important new source of finance for development – one that’s different from aid. This is especially important when public finances are about to experience massive cutbacks in a lot of OECD donor countries, with aid budgets probably among the first casualties.

And he gets that the clock is ticking (“If it were me, I’d close the deal before the rising nations want it backdated”). As David and I note in the post-Copenhagen analysis we did for Brookings, the risk of waiting later and later and later to start talking seriously about developing countries’ fair share of the global emissions budget – something we’ve been doing for years, and are still doing now –  is that developing countries will find that all or most of the available carbon budget to 2050 will have been used up before they come to the table. Hardly promising conditions for a serious global deal.

Second, Bono’s advocacy is a big deal because it could really jump-start the process of strategic renewal so badly needed among the NGOs campaigning on climate change.

NGOs had an appalling year in the run-up to Copenhagen.  Throughout last year, the main NGO coalition,, was vague about its headline policy asks (“ambitious, binding, fair” – but no definition of what these words actually meant). Then the green NGOs blundered into the start of Copenhagen by proposing a peak year for global emissions two years later than the IPCC said was needed. And by the end of the summit, they had collapsed back into the usual rhetoric about rich countries bullying poor countries – overlooking, as Mark Lynas stressed in his must-read Guardian piece, the extent to which actually, something different was going on at the summit.

Last year saw development NGOs increasingly trying to push the wider civil society coalitions towards a more effective stance. They didn’t always (or even often) succeed; but behind the scenes, they were doing as much as they could. When that wasn’t enough, to their credit, agencies like Avaaz and Oxfam proved willing to break visibly with green NGOs on key issues – like what the global peak emissions year should be. So far, though, the ONE Campaign – with its very considerable advocacy firepower – has kept a low profile in all this.  Its main focus in the climate context has been on additional finance for development to tackle climate change – rather than on emissions trading as a source of additional finance for development.

Bono’s article potentially changes all that, given his passing acquintanceship with ONE.  If so, then the significance is not just that it brings another highly effective development NGO into play on the big game. It’s also that it potentially encourages the emerging development / climate coalition to focus on the two biggest questions on the table: what’s the size of a safe global emissions budget, and what’s the fairest way to share it out.

Love him or hate him, Bono’s one of the few people that can take a radical, very far-reaching idea like equal shares to the atmosphere as the foundation for a global deal on climate and just mainstream it – with the UN Secretary-General, with the World Economic Forum, with the Pope, whoever. Which bring me to the third reason why this is a big deal. Not only can Bono and the ONE Campaign pitch this idea to Ban Ki-moon, WEF or Benedict XVI. He can pitch it to the most important group of all right now: G77 leaders.

He can get access to the people who most need to recognise that not only is their solidarity with China on ‘no-targets-for-developing-countries’ harming their long term future by preventing a global climate deal, given that they’re in the front line of climate impacts – it’s also ensuring that they miss out on a potentially huge new flow of finance for development. A simple message that might, just might, get low income countries demanding their fair share of the atmosphere – in doing so, becoming some of the very strongest advocates of an effective global deal. Cross your fingers.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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