This week sees the start of the sixth round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. While the news stories have covered discussions over trade as well as competing territorial claims in the South China Seas, the sleeper issue is the potential for joint action on climate change.
The dialogue had a positive start on Tuesday with joint agreements for Chinese and American companies to explore “clean coal” technologies, in what is hoped to be the first step in efforts by both countries to constrain greenhouse gas emissions.
While these agreements are welcome, the true test of cooperation in combatting climate change will come in Paris in 2015, where the international community meets to adopt a treaty to succeed the Kyoto protocol.
With that in mind, the Stanley Foundation, a U.S.-based organization focused on advancing international cooperation, and the Observer Research Foundation, an India-based public policy think tank, have released a policy brief (“Reframing the Climate Debate“), co-authored by Vivan Sharan and Rei Tang, looking at the issues likely to dominate discussions from now through the conference in December 2015. The report draws from discussions held in New Delhi in February 2014 from a wide array of international participants.
Hitherto, the insuperable obstacle to international cooperation has been the economic asymmetry between the established industrial powers, principally located in North America and Europe, and developing world nations, such as rising economies like India and China to poor nations like Bangladesh, who face much of the risk from climate change while having contributed very little to the emissions growth that has caused it.
Richer nations are unwilling to take aggressive action unless polluting nations in the developing world make similar commitments; those developing world nations, in turn, protest that they are not historically responsible for most of the world’s emissions growth, and they must prioritize poverty eradication over environmental concerns.
If the state parties want to avoid having the Paris negotiations break down over a disagreement on whether it is practicable to adopt across-the-board binding emissions cuts, they will need to get creative in how they conceive of helping each other reach reasonable commitments in building greener economies.
A grand and unifying document is unlikely to arise out of the modest and patchy consensus which seems to mark so much thinking about climate diplomacy now (see Kobad Bhavnagri’s summary of Australia’s back-sliding on its commitments for a sense of where things stand). Thus, it is more helpful to think of Paris as the opening stages of a reorientation of effort, rather than the finish line of a process.
To that end, there are three additional take-aways from “Reframing the Climate Debate” worth further highlighting.
The Importance of “Minilateral” Fora
While the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process is the preferred forum, owing to the fact that every nation has de jure equality and representation at its meetings, it is by no means the only place for consensus-building or advancing policy. As Sharan and Tang argue, various other multilateral mechanisms have sprung up to advance the goals of the UNFCCC.
Just yesterday, a group of World Trade Organization countries announced negotiations over an Environmental Goods Agreement, which would eliminate tariffs on wind turbines and solar panels (though environmentalists are dismayed it also includes some not-too-green products). While the upcoming BRICS Summit (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) next week does not have climate change as a stated area of concern, it certainly impacts their discussions of trade, business, and science and technology.
The G20 in particular has steered the conversation more or less constructively; President Obama in particular is keen to trumpet his Climate Action Plan at the next G20 summit in November (hosted by climate change problem child Australia).
In giving a larger voice to developing nations (in contrast to, say, the G8), it may be more effective at agenda-setting prior to the Paris negotiations than the series of larger precursor meetings held regularly in the run-up to Paris.
From a least common denominator perspective, India and China (both G20 members) are the true test cases for fashioning lower carbon-intensive growth in the developing world. In terms of projected carbon dioxide emissions, calculated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, India in particular is a long-term challenge.
If both nations can commit to a plan to slow and then cut carbon emissions while maintaining acceptable levels of economic growth, its policy choices could serve as a model for other developing nations.
It is not just governmental organizations that are taking a more active interest in pushing for more concerted action. To the extent that businesses and civil society may pressure their governments on the necessity of dealing with climate change, it may reinforce the urgency of political decision-makers to stick to national commitments to reduce carbon emissions.
The advocacy of industries like insurance may raise the political costs of inaction. Sharan and Tang forthrightly call for the private sector to play a more formal and high-profile role in the UNFCCC process; their input should be welcomed by diplomats in Paris.
The Importance of Financing
A critically important component to make climate action desirable is making it inexpensive relative to the status quo. As Sharan and Tang are quick to point out, the financial crisis has drastically reduced the appetites in the United States and Europe for expanding foreign aid.
The Clean Development Mechanism and Green Climate Fund have not brought a requisite level of financial firepower to address their stated goals—the implementation of emissions-reduction projects in the developing world, and for the developed world to fund mitigation and adaptation in the developing world, respectively.
Technology transfer is an obvious solution, but has been bogged down in fights over intellectual property rights and government subsidy programs. Again, the private sector, in particular the rising multi-billion dollar green bond market, may be a useful adjunct to facilitating greater dissemination of cutting-edge technological solutions across borders. Sharan and Tang are correct to note that this needs to be a centerpiece of the discussions in Paris.
The Importance of Urbanization
Lastly, one of the more challenging trends that will unfold with climate change as a backdrop is the growing migration of rural populations to cities. By 2050, it is expected that seven out of every ten people will live in an urban area; nearly 60 million people a year are added to the population of the world’s cities, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It naturally follows, as Sharan and Tang cite, that much of the focus on investment in the developing world will be in urban spaces.
From a climate perspective, this urbanization necessitates careful planning for electricity generation (included distributed solar), mass transit, and building resiliency from natural disasters. After all, as Sharan and Tang write:
The climate change problem is not simply a matter of emissions, but also of consumption and production patterns, particularly in the sectors of energy, infrastructure, and agriculture.
Developing greener cities in countries expected to experience rapid urbanization over the next century will thus be part and parcel of the international community’s challenge in mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change.
As the debate over these issues heats up from now until the end of 2015, observers will benefit from the perspectives summarize by “Reframing the Climate Debate.” One hopes that its optimism, tempered by a realistic assessment of the competing interests, generates a productive discussion about what international cooperation can accomplish as it seeks to addresses one of its most critical issues.