How the fight for what’s right has held back progress on climate change
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The party was great, at least for those who arrived early.
The first diners – let’s call them developed countries – ordered advancements and luxury goods regardless of the atmospheric price. Perhaps at first the cost was not clear.
Others joined the table, hungry for their turn and for a taste of the same. Why should developing countries refrain from using fossil fuels when some have gorged themselves for more than a century?
But now there is without a doubt, it’s time to pay.
From Sunday in Glasgow, the Conference of the Parties (COP) will meet for the 26th time in three decades to try to decide how to split the bill.
What is right – a concept so fundamental that toddlers and chimpanzees having opinions on this – has been far from straightforward when it comes to global climate change negotiations. Allegations of injustice were part of the failure of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 and one of the arguments used by President Donald Trump when the United States temporarily left the Paris Agreement.
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This time, although the science behind man-made climate change is clear and the damage accumulates, especially in less responsible parts of the world, success depends on the agreement of the rich and polluting countries.
“Equity is always in the eye of the beholder,” said Prof. Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, who has attended every annual meeting of the COP since its inception. in Berlin in 1995.
“When I hear these arguments [about fairness], I hear from slave owners … deciding who should sell their slaves or free their slaves first, “said Huq.
“If you don’t sell your slaves or free your slaves first, why should I do it?” No one asks the slaves.
A “bellicose forum”
The understanding that some countries are more responsible than others for climate change has been part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) from the start.
This framework, promulgated in 1994, includes a listing rich and industrialized countries – the United Kingdom, Japan, the United States and Canada among them. These “Annex I” countries are expected to do more, “taking into account their common but differentiated responsibilities,” according to the document.
“They accepted that they were the biggest polluters,” said Huq, who advises the caucus of least developed countries to the COP negotiations.
“The practice of this has become problematic. “
The framework did not include rules for this to happen, so for the decision-making body of the UNFCCC – the COP – to make decisions, all 197 countries involved must agree.
“We need unanimity. And of course, that’s a recipe for the lowest common denominator,” said longtime Guy Saint-Jacques. former diplomat and Chief Negotiator and Ambassador of Canada for Climate Change from 2010 to 2012.
In the absence of a formula for determining fairness, the sharing of the responsibility pie has been a key sticking point since the first COP in 1995.
“This is really one of the challenges,” said Simon Donner, climatologist and professor of geography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and a member of the Canadian advisory body on net zero.
“There is a legitimate disagreement over what the fairest system would be because there are so many different things to consider.”
One approach would be to shift the burden on developed countries, which have both produced and benefited from historic shows – let the rich early customers start footing the bill.
The Kyoto Protocol tried this, requiring major industrialized countries to meet emissions targets, but not developing countries like China, India or Brazil. The United States never ratified it, and Canada committed but then withdrew in 2011 under the Conservatives, arguing “all major emitters“were not included.
“I concluded from my involvement in the negotiations … that it has become a bellicose forum where it will never be possible to reach a meaningful agreement,” said Saint-Jacques.
The breakthrough of Paris – and problem
The Paris Agreement aimed to learn lessons from this failure.
“One of the many breakthroughs of the Paris climate agreement,” Donner said, “has been the idea that each country submits its own voluntary contribution and sets its own emissions target,” known as of nationally determined contribution or NDC.
“The hope was that it would shame countries to set tougher targets.”
While this has gained buy-in – including from China and India – it’s a bit like everyone at the group dinner is putting what they think they have to into play. You might run out, and that’s what has happened – until now.
The goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, but countries’ NDCs to date put the planet on track for 2.7 – which the UN calls a “catastrophic” path.
A key element of COP26 – with security promised-but-not-delivered funding rich countries to help the poorest adjust – puts pressure on countries to strengthen these plans.
“This is really what Glasgow is going to be,” said Huq. “We have to do a lot more.”
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Eye of the beholder
Despite all the attention to the upcoming marathon negotiations in Glasgow, the real pressure is arguably what leaders are getting at home – if the public demands climate action and is willing to pay for it.
A 2017 The study attempted to assess how people perceive fairness, using an ultimatum game played online with real, albeit low, stakes.
Each participant, who was crowdsourced using Amazon Mechanical Turk, was assigned a certain level of responsibility for climate risk and an amount of in-game currency. They met another random player, the one proposing a financing plan for climate change mitigation and the other responding.
If they could come to an agreement on who pays what, they would avert disaster and get a real cash payment in the range of a few dollars. Otherwise, they would risk a climate catastrophe that would wipe out wealth.
The study, published in the journal Climatic Change, found that players made a lot of remarks about what they thought was “right”, but with a more careful eye on the other player’s record.
“The applicant paid a lot of attention to what the respondent had done… in Paris.
“We definitely tend to downplay our own role. At least that’s what experience has suggested.”
Despite our human failures and the turbulent history of the COP negotiations, many observers are still optimistic about current attempts to tackle what Donner calls “the greatest collective action problem in world history” .
He will seek parallel or post-Glasgow solutions, including alliances to reduce coal use and efforts in the financial sector led by the UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance, Marc Carney, former Governor of the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England.
Saint-Jacques, who has lost confidence in the UNFCCC process, sees potential in an idea that has been called “climate club“large issuers jointly enacting their own policies, including carbon tariffs on trade.
While Huq notes that the fate of COP26 is primarily in the hands of the biggest polluters – particularly the leaders of the United States and China – he is backed by public pressure to act led by young climate activists. Anderson agrees.
“I feel more optimistic now than I was,” she said.
“OK, this generation is not going to put up with the same mistakes that the rest of us could have happily accepted.”
WATCH | Officials temper expectations ahead of COP26: