The science is essentially unchallenged, climate activism has reached a crescendo, and U.N. climate negotiators are once again poised to punt. What went wrong, and why isn’t anyone here surprised? How is it that the U.N. has been taking shots at climate change for a quarter-century and failed so completely to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions? I’m sitting in IFEMA Madrid, site of COP 25, and I can’t escape the feeling that the problem lies somewhere in this building. I’m no expert on international law, but five days at the COP has been highly instructive. Here’s my view as a minor interloper in the halls of the rich and powerful.
First, the concept of nationally determined contributions is broken. The NDC – which projects a country’s future carbon-mitigation efforts – is the central mechanism of the Paris Accord. They aren’t currently binding, but the goal was to eventually make them binding, and subject to an international process for approval. Binding NDCs would then drive a global carbon market created under Paris Accord Article 6. In other words, the countries that fell short of their NDCs would have to buy carbon credits to make up the difference.
But this adversarial, outcome-based process – committing to a binding target – is a fundamentally backward approach a collective problem. The UNFCCC relies on consensus, whereas binding targets would inevitably produce economic conflict. The consensus adoption of binding targets is extremely unlikely, so the current stage of negotiations on the Paris Accord might be characterized as dickering over a system to be driven by a commitment that will probably never happen.
And that may be for the best. The main feature of international carbon markets seems to be a sort of climate colonialism. Consider a hypothetical developed country – we’ll call it the United Provinces. The U.P. has a very environmentally aware government, which requires its carbon-intensive auto industry to purchase offsets. Unfortunately, the U.P. already has tight emissions standards for most industries, so offsets are very expensive there. It may cost $100 a ton for the technology to cut emissions even further. In an international market, however, the U.P.’s auto industry can go to a developing country – let’s call it the Island Federation – and invest in cheap offsets there. Market enthusiasts will look at this system and say, “This is great! Money is flowing to the place where it will do the most good! This is exactly what we want to happen!”
But this approach ignores the actual problem and its human consequences. The goal of carbon-neutrality will require investment not only in cheap projects, but in expensive ones, too. The Paris Agreement puts us on the road toward a situation in which U.P., one of the world’s leading emitters, declares itself carbon-neutral because it has already bought up the rights to all the I.F.’s early, cheap offsets; while the I.F. is forced into debt to pay for the most expensive measures to meet its obligations. Carbon investors expect to profit, and where does the money come from? Ultimately, from developing countries. That’s climate colonialism.
Another problem with focusing exclusively on carbon mitigation is that it ignores other greenhouse gases, and even when it is designed to include so-called “nature-based solutions” (e.g., planting mangroves) it tends to ignore the larger picture of ecosystem services – such as flood prevention, toxin filtration, and wildlife habitat – and the local communities that depend on them. “Nature-based solutions” may, itself, be a bit of a misnomer in some cases. For example, either by accident or design, the U.N. REDD program has allowed countries like Cambodia to clear-cut and replace natural forests with monocrop rubber plantations under the auspices of UNEP.
So, the current direction of the COP can be accurately summarized as a process narrowly tailored by the rich, for the rich, at the expense of the most vulnerable. What would a better process look like? A little inclusivity would be a good place to start.
The best metaphor for Fortress COP is a medieval motte and bailey. The first wall separates the public from the various stakeholders (e.g., scientists, academics, private sector) identified by their yellow badges. The second wall separates the yellow badges from the pink-the parties. Mr. President, tear down these walls!
By and large, the negotiations occurring at COP are being conducted by professional diplomats under instructions from their respective capitals. The practical effect is to limit negotiations to what has already been anticipated and approved, and thus render them essentially moot.
A good first step to climate progress would be to let the experts back into the room. I was just a kid back then, but it’s my understanding that at one time, the U.N. climate process was much more science- and policy-driven, following an approach based on “policies and measures” (PAMs). Simply put, instead of the one-size-fits-all approach of a carbon market, national policymakers would engage in a sector-based analysis that allowed them to identify their own needs and pick from a menu of best practices.
International progress on climate change will start with letting the experts back into the room, but it won’t end until stakeholders have a place in the process, as well. Human rights have historically been excluded from international climate negotiations, and there are two, competing schools of thought on this issue. The first is that the climate change issue is too important to risk by involving controversial notions of human rights. The second is that the issues of climate action and climate justice are interlinked, and that the former will not or should not be achieved without the latter.
You can probably guess which way I lean. Yesterday I heard from a woman who described the battles activists had been required to fight to get gender and indigenous rights on the COP agenda, but she surprised me by describing them in the manner of a battle that had already been won. Is this all that marginalized groups should aspire to be? On the agenda? It’s an oft-repeated adage in environmental justice circles that “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Well, until the scientists and human rights advocates have a seat at the table, science and human rights are going to be on the menu.