Environmental Pragmatism

As April 22 is Earth Day’s 40th anniversary, it is an appropriate time to take stock of the current state of environmental policy, especially vis-à-vis climate change. There is little disagreement that Copenhagen was a resounding failure, culminating with a non-binding, toothless commitment to restrain global warming by 2050. Many die-hard supporters of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process argue that last December’s Copenhagen conference was a partial success, given that it reached a consensus ‘agreement’ to constrain long-term global temperature growth and saw increased political momentum for approval of the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation mechanism (REDD+), that, in addition to providing financial incentives for forest preservation, also addresses conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks. However, the clamor surrounding the lead-up to the conference and its chaotic conclusion highlights the need for a completely new streamlined system that has fewer participants, that is better informed, and that embraces pragmatism over ideology.

Calls for a new regime are substantiated by the current uncertainty now surrounding the UNFCC. The resignation of Yvo De Boer, the UNFCC’s top official, coupled with the spate of announcements by high-level officials lowering expectations for the UNFCC’s upcoming Cancun meeting means that an effective solution to this problem is not on the horizon.

The argument to replace the UNFCCC’s process is not new: in November 2009, the Brookings Institution released a report highlighting the need for smaller scale negotiations. While the report proposes the creation of a new “E-10”, a forum of ten leading emitting nations, certainly the existing G-20 and MEF are perfectly capable, as long as climate change legislation remains a priority on the agenda. Currently, the G-20 and MEF merely serve as stepping-stones for UNFCCC negotiations. A better approach would involve transferring total responsibility of climate change mitigation to a significantly smaller group.

Replacing the UNFCCC with a smaller, more agile forum is of paramount importance if we are to move the global community forward on a proactive climate change agenda. Though most developing countries are unfortunately on the front lines in exposure to the effects of climate change, they have contributed relatively little to growing CO2 emissions rates. In fact, nearly 1.6 billion people lack rudimentary access to electricity. Until the developed world is willing to make serious binding commitments, adding most developing nations (other than emerging power such as China, India, Brazil, and South Africa) to the negotiation process makes it unnecessarily cumbersome and is foolish and a waste of precious time.

The second largest problem is the uncertainty regarding the economics of climate change. Too often in this debate (as in others, i.e. healthcare), extreme viewpoints are highlighted and recited as gospel. The oft-cited Stern Report, by Lord Nicholas Stern for the use of the British Government, is considered by many leading economists to be economically flawed. Yet it remains one of the most referenced sources detailing the economic impact of climate change. The truth is that the economic costs of climate change mitigation and adaptation are still unknown – the OECD estimates mitigation costs between $350 billion and $3 trillion per year. Against this range of uncertainty, blindly proposing financing mechanisms runs a very real risk of not being cost-efficient (see the expiring Kyoto Protocol for how to make non-cost effective international agreements) and may needlessly direct funding away from other concerns such as combating malnutrition and disease, empowering women, and childhood survival. More important than providing billions in funds to developing nations, which are often misallocated and squandered, is the commitment to developing robust verification and monitoring frameworks as well as transparent judicial systems to reduce the transaction costs of technology transfer.

Finally, people need to embrace pragmatism. Though it is not ideal and rarely a sexy declaration, pragmatism and incrementalism are the obligatory taxes of multilateral agreements (mind you, they are less obtrusive with fewer parties). There are many tools at our disposal that can put the stalled climate change efforts into first gear. First, we must embrace bridge technologies, such as natural gas, nuclear energy, and state of the art cleaner coal. With total global renewable energy capacity falling catastrophically short of global energy demand, ‘bridge’ technologies can ease the environmental strain while we wait for renewable capacity to reach requisite levels. In addition, investments in upgrading many nations’ electricity grids will make a remarkable difference in the environmental impact of power generation.

The need for action to reduce climate change is very real, particularly as many emerging economies and failed and near-failed states are most at risk and can potentially spur widespread global unrest. Clinging to an inefficient, incapable system will only exacerbate the crisis of inaction at a time where the world can ill-afford it. By focusing on smaller negotiations with actual large emitters, garnering a better understanding of the real economics behind climate change, and embracing smaller steps in ‘bridge’ technologies, we can do a far more effective job of getting the ball rolling.