By Laurie Goering
For most of the last 20 years, people worried about climate change have been trying to deal with the problem by negotiating a binding global treaty to reduce the emissions that cause it.
But after years of high-profile climate talks – at Rio, Nairobi, Bali, Copenhagen, Cancun – “the negotiations haven’t got us close to that deal,” says Robert Falkner, an expert on international relations and global governance at the London School of Economics and at London’s Chatham House policy institute.
Even Christina Figueres, the United Nations’ climate change chief, now says publicly that “this planet is not going to be saved by any big bang agreement.”
“The fact is that it’s unreasonable to expect that there is going to be one large comprehensive agreement that will address all issues and will miraculously change the way that we’ve been doing things for a hundred years,” she said before the last major climate negotiations, in Cancun.
So where do the talks go from here? As climate-changing emissions continue to grow at a record pace, putting the world on a path to a 4-degree Celsius or higher temperature rise by 2100, are the negotiations simply a waste of time and resources? Is there a better way of trying to rein in emissions and help the world’s more vulnerable people deal with the impacts of climate change?
BUILDING BLOCKS APPROACH
The answer, a growing number of climate experts say, is to try adopting a “building blocks” approach to addressing climate change. That means pushing forward with thousands of smaller international, national, regional and local efforts to address the problem while keeping the talks going to – with luck – provide a framework for all the disparate pieces down the road.
“That is, I would argue, the future for climate negotiations,” Falkner said at a recent conference on climate change in the Caribbean. “It is a second-best future but one we must accept as a fact.”
Efforts to negotiate one global climate treaty, he said, face several fatal flaws. The first – as virtually everyone is aware by this point – is that the United States, the world’s second biggest carbon emitter behind China, and the biggest historical producer of the gases, is unlikely to ever join a binding climate treaty.
Because of the country’s divisive politics and the need for a two-thirds vote in the Senate to ratify any international treaty, “I would argue the U.S. is structurally unable to ever sign up to a global climate treaty with binding targets,” Falkner said.
The world’s two biggest emerging emitters – China and India – could ratify a deal but won’t commit to binding emissions reductions while the costs of paying for them remain uncertain going forward, he said.
The other major problem, Falkner said, is that “climate change is too big to be dealt with in one negotiation.” Talks trying to deal with issues as diverse as energy policy, trade policy, technology transfer, forest management and international finance have gotten bogged down under the sheer weight of issues to address.
PROGRESS OUTSIDE NEGOTIATIONS
However, as the talks have slowed, work on climate issues has not. Around the world governments, businesses and communities have pushed ahead with efforts – sometimes little coordinated – to protect forests, ensure developing countries adopt cleaner energy technology, create carbon-trading systems, cut energy use and achieve national or regional emissions reductions.
“It looks increasingly likely that the real progress on fighting global warming will take place outside the U.N. process, in national, regional and state-level carbon markets,” said Annie Petsonk, a lawyer with the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund, during the latest round of climate negotiations in Bonn last week.
But even within the hamstrung talks, progress is being made on a few key issues including, crucially, ensuring the world’ most vulnerable countries get international funds to help them deal with climate impacts and develop in a cleaner way.
One day, Falkner argues, all those efforts will need to be coordinated to ensure they add up to something big enough and effective enough to limit and address climate change – something they clearly do not at the moment.
That means the international climate talks – frustrating and wasteful as they are – need to keep going to provide an eventual policy umbrella for all the work actually being done outside in the real world.
The talks could one day provide “an uneven but perhaps eventually successful climate architecture,” Falkner says.
The bigger question is whether it will happen in time to avert the worst impacts of climate change, which scientists warn are becoming increasingly inevitable as time passes with inadequate action.
“This progressive approach is probably a sane approach, but it is in stark contrast to the urgency of the matter,” Figueres has warned. “That’s the problem: We can only go in incremental steps but the matter is really very urgent.”
Laurie Goering is the editor of AlertNet Climate.
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)