“Cancún may have saved the process but it did not save the climate.” Said a Greenpeace activist at the end of the last Cancun Conference of Parties (COP) 16 Climate negotiations in December 2010.
True. Broadly speaking, what was agreed in Cancun’s COP16 is to continue working together, with more transparency, more cooperation in technology transfer, more money on the table but without the commitment to neither reduce emissions to a level that could keep global warming under the catastrophic 2 degrees nor targets and rules on how to organise the global transition to low carbon economy. To put it simply; the success of Cancun was to avoid the end of multilateralism in climate negotiations. There were no commitments to replace the Kyoto protocol except for its financial mechanisms. The Kyoto protocol, which back in 1997 was seen as nothing exceptional, is now seen as the panacea and few countries are willing to go beyond it even when knowing that Kyoto is insufficient to save us from climate change.
The process was saved but the world citizens continue to lose. The negotiations didn’t collapse but they are far from being able to provide what would be the minimum compromise acceptable for the world citizens: keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius -the agreed text could allow global temperatures to increase by more than 4 degrees which estimations show that could increase climate-change related deaths from current 300.000 to 1 million-. In the current format of intergovernmental negotiations the world citizens are not present in the negotiation table, hence it should surprise no one that they were the losers of the successive COP 15 and 16.
Should we be happy that UN-type multilateralism survived one more round? Arguably this is the best system that we have and although it has not served the purpose of uniting the world against climate change it is our only tool in a “politics as usual” scenario. The problem is that in a “politics as usual” scenario the humankind has little chances of surviving.
If the Cancun agreement had been about global disarmament and not climate change an equivalent of the shady results could be accepted. Some players such as the EU pushed a bit more, some others such as Japan tried to stop it, but overall the result is not a step backwards and hence an acceptable outcome. Fair enough. We can always trust that if we survive another world war we can try to learn the lessons as we partially did after World War II. The problem with climate change is that if the scientists are right and we are facing severe irreversible changes in the climate the result of Cancun is as insufficient as unacceptable. If achieving the maximum of what is politically possible is not enough to save the planet there is a need to change the rules of the game or the game itself. In other words, if we accept Bismarck’s quote “politics is the art of possible” to explain the climate change negotiations, then we have no option other than changing politics until we can make possible what is necessary.
International politics as usual can’t be an option if we want to meet the minimum conditions to have enough chances to survive. A change of the magnitude of what happened in the post-WWII is needed: At the end of WWII the world was split as ever and there was an attempt to unite it with the creation of the UN. However, the high conditionality, the absence of real integration, the veto power, the lack of democracy and the persistent intergovernmental approach made the UN weak and irrelevant when important issues were at stake –wars and others kind of major crisis like climate change-. What history teaches us is that UN kind of multilateralism is not enough to deliver systemic changes.
The other side of the coin was Europe, where a core of countries decided to move ahead with the revolutionary proposal of creating the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), a common project with common institutions that with limited but real power managed to achieve a common goal. Had the ECSC waited for the United Kingdom to start the process that was to lead to what is today the EU, we would probably not have the EU today. A parallelism can be drawn for the global Climate Change action, the US threat to block the process has conditioned 20 years of negotiations. The system of cap and trade and offsetting of carbon that we have today and which is failing to reduce emissions -but succeeding in creating lucrative speculative carbon markets- is the only concession given by the US. If the US had continued to play the positive role that it played in the WWII period we would probably have established a system of emission limits managed by a small supranational body that would have delivered a lot better results than the current system. But the US has not been in favour of democratic international institutions since 1946 and we have been paying a high price for it. Likewise, currently the emerging economies might be blinded by the illusion of power and not willing to join a supranational institution at once.
It is necessary to move on.
There are three possibilities to move ahead; the first and full-blown possibility is the creation of a Global Community for the Environment (GCE) to manage the emissions, the transfer of technology and the common actions in a democratic and accountable way. It would follow the model of the ECSC; creating of a communitarian body that takes care of the global common interest, a bi-cameral legislative assembly composed of representatives of the people of the union and a council representing the member-states and finally a judiciary with the role of settling disputes. This would be the optimal way to approach a global problem; with democratic institutions that can take democratic and accountable decisions minimising the danger of blockade.
A second possibility is the creation of a World Environment Organisation whose structure would resemble the current World Trade Organisation. It could be created with a treaty and it could do the job if it managed to put in place a good system to settle disputes. This is an old proposal retaken by the German and French leaders, Merkel and Sarkozy, which was proposed to the SG of the UN without much success. The draw-backs of such as solution are; that it only includes the interests of the states but neither the interests of the citizens nor the global interest, that if it is to follow the WTO system the communitarian body –the secretariat- would be too weak to steer anything and that it would be a lost opportunity to engage the citizens in the fight against climate change. The WTO doesn’t have a good reputation among citizens; it is perceived as distant and surrounded by demonstrators and riots. The fact is that despite the procedures can be democratic; the decisions are taken in the intergovernmental limbo far away from the citizens.
A third option is the International Court for the Environment (ICE) following the precedent of the International Criminal Court. A global judiciary on climate issues –ruling on the jurisdiction provided by the convention and protocols- is indispensable to avoid the current lack of enforcement of the policies. The ICE would be a first step towards communitarianism from which it would be possible to evolve towards a democratic and accountable system of world relations.
All three options have no chances to succeed in the short term if all the countries are expected to sign in. It is necessary that a group of countries decide to move ahead –like France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux did 60 years ago with the creation of the ECSC- and set up institutions that are capable to deal with global problems. If we study the impact of the ECSC we see that building a communitarian approach to fight climate change would not only benefit those who are in the union, it would also benefit those who are outside. For instance; the UK, Poland or Spain profited from the stability, common understanding, vision and good management of resources of the European Community even before they joined the EU. The same would happen for the US and the few other countries who would decide to stay out of the first Global Community for the Environment.
For instance, the US, the first polluter per capita in the world, would benefit not only because they will profit from the effort of the others to fight climate change but also because they would understand that it is in the interest of everybody to change the current fossil-fuelled economy into a more efficient and decarbonised one. It is a paradox that a country with a structural fear to state intervention approves that the government continue to use the tax-payers money to subsidise fossil fuels. This is not only against free-market but also against the world interest. For what matters a Global Climate Community would foster pooling of research and technologies and by bringing in the concept of supranational solidarity and thanks to the economies of scale it would allow rapid decarbonisation of the world economy. From the competitive point of view, any country that continues to subsidise fossil-fuels would be interested in joining the community, same as the UK decided that joining the EU is better than staying outside, because of widening technological gap. A coherent and responsible communitarian management of the transition to low-carbon economy would spark a lot more innovation and productivity than an economy that subsidises fossil fuels. The US would have to join the Global Climate Community before the Tea Party can imagine.
What about China and India? They are becoming the biggest world polluters and hence it will be difficult to strike a deal on capping emissions. However their opposition to a better governance solution is not of the same nature as the one from the US. A communitarian approach to GHG emissions, eco-efficiency, resource use, biodiversity, energy savings, transnational infrastructure and renewable energies as well as a progressive deal in worldwide converging emissions per capita are possible positive outcomes of setting up a communitarian system based on trust and equality between the members. The EU enlargement process is a good example of the positive and quick spill-overs of political and economic union. However, whilst the EU is a good benchmark of the positive effects and externalities of setting up a communitarian system, the UN system and more concretely the UNFCCC is a benchmark of how little can be achieved in horse-trading deals in intergovernmental forums.
In order to solve the current challenges it is important to leave intergovernmentalism behind and find ways for human-beings to work in the same direction, towards the same goal. For diplomats and politicians the climate negotiations are seen as a battle-field where there are winners and losers –funnily those who think they are the winners are those manage to continue to pollute and the losers those who have to cut emissions-. The truth is that with the current system all the world citizens lose and as we start to feel the effects of climate change so does the faith in democratic institutions and politics in general as an instrument to serve the citizens problems.
Let us not be blinded by the change of mood after Cancun’s COP 16. World emissions continue to increase and the rhetoric of world cooperation and leaving the solutions to the carbon markets will not suffice. The current economic crisis proves that markets alone –be it financial or carbon markets- will not work; it is the combination of market tools with regulations, democratic control and political leadership that have the power to get us out of the current financial, economic and ecological crisis. And this combination cannot happen without global institutions. Like 60 years ago, history is pushing humankind to the “unite or perish” dilemma. May we be wiser this time.