What 2015 gave, 2016 appears to taketh away. Last year, the Paris Agreement, despite its flaws, gave faint hope that the neo-liberal, non-representative form of globalisation that we have witnessed over past decades will not, quite literally, spell the end of the world. This year we have the triumph of Trump, along with his coterie of climate change “bah humbug-ers”, threatening not only the future of the Agreement, but of any inclusive form of global cooperation.
What will the future bring? We genuinely cannot say, given the very confusing signals that the very confused Trump is sending. In the spirit of the season, however, let the ghosts of climate change conferences past, present, and yet to come show us glimpses of what was, what is, and what could be.
Chapter 1: The Ghost of Conferences Past
What have three decades of global cooperation on climate change taught us, that might help navigate the uncertainties of the present and future?
Trust and ambition
Global efforts to address climate change started in the late 1980s. From the beginning, the US opposed the determination of national reduction targets based on responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, right from the start, when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was being negotiated, America wanted mitigation action to be nationally determined – then called “pledge and review”.
This position made developing countries deeply uncomfortable. They were aware that they were more vulnerable to international pressure to raise these “nationally-determined” pledges, and they feared international intrusion in national policy making. The fear of “green sticks” to force developing countries to act on environmental issues was founded in experience. Instead, developing countries called for rule-based determination of national responsibility to form the basis for national action, based on the polluter pays principle.
In the end, however, the UNFCCC included only a nominal pledge by developed countries, to undertake policies and measures with the aim of returning their emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. (This was met collectively, but without targeted effort, primarily due to economic stagnation in former Soviet countries. Individually, the emissions of many countries went up – for instance, emissions rose by 18% in the US over this decade).
The Convention did not recognise the polluter pays principle, or address the impact of unsustainable consumption on global warming. Instead, the “common but differentiated responsibilities” principle was agreed, which developing countries saw as a dilution of the polluter pays principle. The US further made it clear that it had accepted differentiated responsibilities not because it accepted responsibility for climate change, but because it had the capability to make changes. “We all agree that industrialised countries should take the lead, but we do not agree why,” a member of the US delegation is reported to have said at the Rio Summit.
The Convention was described by civil society as “true trash” after it was adopted. One negotiating group had too much at stake to rely on a neutered treaty. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), formed after a Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise in the Maldives in 1989, has been the conscience of the climate change process from the beginning. In the post-Rio period, the group continued to push for legally binding emission cuts through a protocol, and to call for a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2000 (based on the “Toronto Targets”, which were proposed at a conference on the global security implications of climate change held in Toronto in 1988).
This proposal from AOSIS was not supported by the G77 and China (particularly OPEC) when countries met at the first Conference of Parties (COP 1) to the UNFCCC in Berlin in 1995. They were nervous of a discussion on legally binding targets in the absence of a fair basis to assign national responsibilities for climate change. These fears were well founded – the US and its allies continued to call for emission cuts by larger developing countries, and the JUSCANZ grouping (Japan, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) emerged at this COP, uniting countries that opposed action by industrialised countries unless developing countries accept commitments.
Therefore, in Berlin in 1995, the starting negotiating position of some large developing countries was a paradox: they opposed ambition in addressing climate change, despite their own extreme vulnerability. Does this sound familiar to those of us who were in Paris in 2016?
Fear of the unknown
In Berlin, however, the eventual outcome was quite different from Paris.
Many of the big global NGOs were quick to support the newly formed JUSCANZ. They singled out large developing countries like India and China, going so far as to propose a moratorium on foreign assistance to projects that might lead to emissions. This gave further credence to the ultimate nightmare of developing country governments: the use of global trade and aid measures to interfere in national policy making to make them comply, while developed countries do as little or as much as they please.
However, Indian and German civil society played a critical role in addressing these fears. Pressure from Indian NGOs convinced the Indian delegation that their national interest was served much better if they supported mitigation ambition – if their concerns for fairness are taken on board. India proposed a Green Paper supporting the AOSIS proposal, but with commitments only for developed countries. This paper was supported by a group of 72 “like-minded” developing countries. The German media played an important role in convincing Angela Merkel, then environment minister, to support the proposal. The proposal eventually became the basis for the Berlin Mandate – which called for the negotiation of what eventually became the Kyoto Protocol.
In Paris in 2016, on the other hand, India’s (admittedly vague and sometimes confusing) call for a fair basis for deciding responsibility and the allocation of carbon budgets within a more ambitious framework to limit average global temperature rise to 1.5°C went unheeded. (I describe India’s position as “vague” because no firm proposal was tabled by India on how the Paris outcome could be “fair”; it was confusing because although India called for “fair shares” to be a basis on one hand, it opposed language calling on countries to “provide information on the fairness and ambition” of their contributions on the other).The Western media mainly focused on India’s opposition to the inclusion of the 1.5°C goal, ascribing this to India’s addiction to coal.
Surprisingly, very few questioned why such a vulnerable country would oppose higher ambition in addressing climate change. It is not in the interest of vulnerable developing countries to oppose ambition on climate change – they have too much to lose. They will oppose ambition in mitigation only if they don’t have faith in the global community’s capacity to deliver a fair solution, and fear (rightly or wrongly) that they have much more to lose from an unfair mitigation deal than from climate impacts.
Enablers and disablers
In Berlin, therefore, civil society, including the media, played a critical role in building bridges and creating a safe space in which countries felt comfortable supporting ambition.
Soon after Berlin, however, as the Kyoto negotiations started, any discussion on the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change became anathema – even among civil society groups such as Climate Action Network. They were afraid that the US would walk away from the Kyoto Protocol discussions if these issues were raised. Keeping the US in the negotiations became the bottom-line, even though it was very clear to the world that the US would have trouble ratifying any climate agreement, given the domestic political situation. The infamous Byrd-Hagel Resolution was passed by the US Senate in the summer of 1997, before the Kyoto conference, making action by the US conditional to “meaningful participation” by developing countries.
In retrospect, it may not have been worth sacrificing a fair and durable foundation for the Kyoto Protocol targets for a vague hope that the US might ratify. While governments could perhaps be excused for making this compromise in their quest for reciprocity, civil society should not have supported so much compromise, on so little promise.
In the post-Kyoto period, more NGOs have joined the call for fairness to form the basis for mitigation action, producing, for instance, this review of NDCs from a “fair shares” perspective. But many NGOs and academics still continue to avoid and ignore the moral and ethical aspects of climate change. The latter have advocated avoiding any discussions on justice in both academic work and policy discussions because they are conceptually flawed, could “derail the negotiations” and “erode political will”. They couldn’t be more wrong, as I have argued in my previous blog – avoiding these discussions only breeds mistrust and kills ambition.
Alliances and coalitions
In Berlin, the alliance between the AOSIS, India and Germany resulted in a breakthrough. In Paris, old alliances had either fallen apart, been abandoned, or been strategically destroyed. For instance, India and other large developing countries no longer provided meaningful leadership to vulnerable countries like they did in Berlin, by taking on board their concerns for effectiveness along with their own concerns for fairness. They have even distanced themselves by aligning instead with identities that have been carefully cultivated for them, such as the BASIC group.
Understandably, AOSIS members and other vulnerable countries feel let down. The EU spotted the leadership vacuum and implemented a “masterplan” starting in Durban, building an alliance with vulnerable countries, while actively isolating the larger developing countries. This masterplan culminated in “high ambition coalition” in Paris, which was as much about exclusion and isolation, as it was about coalition building. Much like the infamous “Coalition of the Willing”, countries with legitimate concerns found themselves at the wrong end of a “you are either with us or against us” fatwa, whereas some of questionable ambition and intent became part of the coalition.
Laggards and leaders
The Berlin Mandate, as we saw, only called for emission reduction targets for developed countries. Unfortunately, developing countries sat back and let the developed world sort out the cuts they would take under the Kyoto Protocol amongst themselves. This was a mistake. The bigger developing countries should have participated actively, demanding rules that were fair enough to apply to them in the future. So, for instance, there should have been clear ‘graduation’ triggers agreed for when countries would start taking on emission reduction targets, and criterion for what these reduction targets should be. There were some good proposals on the table for such criterion – including, for instance, the Brazilian proposal to decide responsibility based on contributions to temperature increase.
As it is, the Kyoto Protocol was watered down and then abandoned by the Americans. The EU’s leadership went so far as to have the Protocol ratified, but did not extend to using the US withdrawal as an opportunity to discuss a future second commitment period for the Protocol, which included a serious consideration of responsibility and fairness. Instead, the EU simply took up where the US left off, and continued to call for developing country targets without any assurances of fairness as a basis. The moment Obama replaced Bush, they abdicated leadership eagerly, letting the US lead us through the same dance again.
In the post-Kyoto period, developing countries were still not eager to open a discussion on the fairness criterion under which they should take on emissions reductions, preferring instead to hide behind the Berlin/ Kyoto “firewall”. This was their failure. Little by little they lost ground, and soon found that the firewall had disappeared – they were expected to take on mitigation action – but no fairness criteria were agreed or even discussed. Under the circumstances, if there were no fairness criteria to decide mitigation action, then it was no longer in the interests of the big developing countries to support top-down, international determination of targets. They found themselves in the same camp as the US, supporting national determination of contributions – the pledge and review that they had opposed in Berlin.
Can the downward spiral of ambition be reversed? Particularly now, that we have an Agreement where ambition is not yet guaranteed, and is further threatened by a repeat of the post-Kyoto scenario, where a country that pushed for such a weak agreement in the first place may no longer participate?
That is a story for the ghost of conferences yet to come, after we have had a brief visit from the ghost of conferences present.