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The Gordian knot

Scholars of various disciplines are doing research into how to make policy to protect the climate effectively and fast. Global negotiations tend to be cumbersome, but fast progress is needed if global warming is not to exceed two degrees Celsius on average. Unless that goal is achieved, however, the social, economic and political impacts of climate change are likely to spin out of control. The WBGU, an advisory board to Germany’s Federal Government on global change, has made a sensible proposal.

[ By Imme Scholz ]

last contributed to D+C/E+Z in spring of 2022. She is president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which maintains close ties with the German Green Party . This comment is based on the farewell address she held at the German Development Institute (DIE – Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik), where she had served as deputy director until the end of March.

Considering the urgency of the situation, one asks oneself why policymakers have not yet taken measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and turned away from the model of the fossil-fuel-based economy all together. Anthony Giddens addresses this issue in his new book “The politics of climate change”. Giddens, a professor at the London School of Economics, is one of Europe's foremost sociologists and has also made himself a name by intervening in politics. In the 1990s, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder subscribed to his concept of the “Third Way” to modernise Social Democracy.

The author discusses a well-understood dilemma of climate policy. Somewhat vainly, he calls it “Giddens’ paradox”: “Since the dangers posed by global warming aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day-to-day life, however awesome they appear, many will sit on their hands and do nothing of a concrete nature about them. Yet waiting until they become visible and acute before being stirred to serious action will, by definition, be too late.”

Nonetheless, Giddens fails to develop this idea into a systematic analysis. He considers short-term national egotism the reason why the UN’s climate framework convention and the Kyoto Protocol have been so ineffective to date. The United States, for example, refused to join the Kyoto Protocol, arguing the treaty would distort competition with emerging-market nations such as China, because the Protocol does not require them to reduce carbon emissions. Protecting the climate and economic objectives thus became mutually exclusive.

Giddens holds that the progress that some European countries have made on climate protection results from leaders’ calculations on how best to attain-energy security or save money through efficiency. In other words, governments were not motivated by reasons linked to climate change.

Giddens believes the real reason for failure is the somewhat fundamentalist critique the green movement has aimed at capitalism and party-based representative democracy. That, he says, is why legislators and governments have failed to define clear principles and find practical solutions. Giddens argues that humans will increasingly be able to control nature thanks to scientific and technological progress (“ecological modernisation” in his words), and will thus become able to tackle climate change.

Given his trust in unlimited technological options, he even rejects the principle of precautionary action. This notion was born out of criticism of high-risk technologies (such as nuclear power) and is about avoidance of risks and prevention of danger always having priority. But while Giddens would have us believe that this is a technophobic concept, it is actually quite realistic. Analyses by the IPCC (2007) prove that humankind is still far from understanding the complexity of climatic and ecological processes. Controlling them is far beyond our scope.

Though Giddens’ core argument is disappointing, many of his demands make sense. Climate policy should indeed
– be implemented with a long-term perspective and in a non-partisan fashion,
– guide decision-making in many fields,
– be based on some kind of corporatist cooperation between governments, the private sector and civil society, and
– avoid negative consequences for the poorest section of the world’s population and thus ensure broad acceptance.

Giddens anticipates the Copenhagen climate summit with skepticism. Negotiations over a global climate treaty will, in his view, either fail because of the self-interest of major countries, or only lead to a solution based on the lowest common denominator.

As an alternative, he proposes that the six largest carbon emitters negotiate climate policy among themselves. He also thinks regional cooperation makes sense, and explicitly supports what he calls “coalitions of the willing”.

These are conclusions that Frank Biermann, Philipp Pattberg and Fariborz Zelli disagree with in a forthcoming book. Their study underscores the importance of globally coordinated policymaking. They use the term global governance architecture to describe how various treaties, organisations and negotiation processes build on each other at the international level. The overall architecture is the result of incremental developments as governments cooperate to tackle a huge and diverse variety of problems. The nature of this architecture is fragmentary.

The more clearly an area, in which reforms are necessary, is defined, the better are the chances of stringent international action. The authors discern three types of global-governance fragmentation:
– synergistic (individual actors and systemic elements cooperate closely),
– cooperative (open confrontation is avoided despite major differences between the participating institutions, their principles and their interests) and
– conflictive (actors accept conflict and competition, and even underscore tensions).

Biermann, Pattberg and Zelli consider the global climate regime an example of cooperative fragmentation. Despite many conflicting interests, after all, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol provide a common frame of reference which includes all nations.

In view of this setting, Giddens’ preference for “coalitions of the willing” is certainly wrong. Greenhouse gas emissions must stay below a certain threshold permanently, and they must do so the world over. All current and emerging emitters must cooperate if that is to be achieved.

New model for emissions trading

The German Advisory Council on Global Change, or WBGU, proposes how agreement could be reached in Copenhagen. It assumes that the ongoing negotiation process will fail as it struggles with diverging interests of individual countries, is slowed down by overly-bureaucratic approaches and proves unable to provide enough incentives for economic or societal change.

In order to cut the Gordian knot of climate policy, the WBGU proposes a new model for trading emissions at the global level. It would not be based upon an obligation to reduce emissions, but rather on equal emission rights per person. These rights would be calculated on the basis of what level of carbon emissions the atmosphere can still absorb until 2050 without temperatures rising by more than two degrees Celsius. For reasons of fairness, this global carbon budget would be shared equally among the world population of 2010. Countries could then either use these emissions budgets themselves or sell them.

In its approach, the WBGU also includes the effects of future economic growth. Two issues become clear:
– The longer it takes to start reducing emissions, the more difficult it will become to stay within the two-degree threshold. Should carbon emissions only begin to drop in 2015, humanity would have to reduce emissions by five percent every year (compared to 2008 levels). In other words, we would have to cut annually by the rate the Kyoto Protocol had (unsuccessfully) set for two decades.
– Rich nations are not the only ones under pressure to make their industries less carbon-intensive by 2050. So are a number of Arab countries along with Venezuela, South Africa and Iran. A second group of nations would have 20 to 40 years to reduce emissions, including, among others, Argentina, Chile, China, Mexico and Thailand, as well as Cuba, Syria and Tunisia. The third group is composed of countries that currently burn only quite small amounts of fossil fuels per capita, such as Brazil, Egypt, India, Peru and most sub-Saharan countries. More than half of the world population live in these countries.

The WBGU approach would benefit the group of poor countries in particular. On the one hand, they would gain time before having to reduce carbon emissions; on the other hand, they could raise money by selling emission rights.

According to the WBGU, the new model would give different groups of countries that as yet do not have any common strategic interests incentives to form coalitions. Industrialised countries would buy emission rights from poor nations, thus funding climate-friendly development there. They would furthermore cooperate with countries from the second group, and at least partially fund structural change, to keep emission prices from rising endlessly.

The WBGU insists that time is running out, and that we depend on cooperative solutions. The time for experiments is over. Of course, the WBGU’s concept would need consent from governments in the North and South, but it certainly offers an opportunity to quickly and effectively end the marathon negotiations that have dragged on for 17 years.

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