We Need a New Compromise to Break the Climate Negotiations Impasse

As one who brings students to observe and report on the United Nations negotiations on climate change and who would like to see those negotiations succeed, it is easy to be discouraged at the snail’s pace of progress. The big promised outcome of “preventing dangerous climate change,” agreed to by 195 countries in the 1992 Framework Convention (UNFCCC), has not been met by any measure 22 years later. In the end, the UNFCCC is the only global group of nations that can make binding commitments to solve this problem.

Still, another approach is clearly needed. In our paper released in Nature Climate Change this week (and first released as a Brookings policy brief), Marco Grasso and I argue that we could take four steps to break the impasse.

  1. A much smaller group of nations should strike a deal.  We propose that the “Major Economies Forum” (MEF), which with 13 economies is responsible for 81 percent of all global carbon dioxide emissions since 1990, would be an excellent forum for such negotiation. Other smaller groups like the G-7, G-20 or even the G-2 of the United States and China could make a deal, and by doing so could inspire action by many other countries that are waiting for these two to move. 
  2. Country emissions should be measured in a fairer way. Traditionally emissions have been measured by directly aggregating the levels of CO2 produced in a nation’s geographical area.  However, when a country’s manufacturing and mining are outsourced or shipped overseas, it is too easy for some countries to show improvements while driving up the industrializing nations’ emissions. Glen Peters at the CICERO Institute in Norway has pioneered what is called “consumption-based” emissions accounting, which addresses this problem. Under this system, those who get the benefit of the product are held responsible for emissions generated all along the chain of the manufacture, transport and sale of their purchases.  It turns out that this fairer accounting system helps China somewhat because they are “the workshop of the world,” and does not markedly affect the U.S. accounting. 
  3. A deal should be based on fairly sharing whatever amount of emissions scientists believe we can still pump into the atmosphere before we trigger “dangerous climate change.”  Once we have triggered such danger, we will have spent the entire “global carbon budget.” To be acceptable to developing countries, the deal struck between MEF countries must be based on the core principles of the UNFCCC agreed to back in 1992: equity, responsibility and capability.  These principles can be used to divide up the global carbon budget share that the MEF countries currently use. As an example of one way to do this, we use consumption-based emissions by nations since 1990. We call these total emissions a country’s “historical responsibility” since the time that climate change became widely understood to be a problem. We use GDP per capita—a common indicator of level of wealth—as a proxy for a nation’s capability to address climate change. In other words, wealthier and higher-polluting nations are expected to do more than poorer and lower emitting ones. 
  4. The deal struck in the small group should be brought back into the UNFCCC. We describe in the article some of the ways that having leadership from the big emitters would make other nations more likely to act. We also describe some groups of nations that should be expected to come into the plan first.  For example, wealthy nations who are not members of the MEF should be expected to comply nearly immediately with the scheme; poorer nations may need assistance and substantially more time to build their capacity to monitor their emissions and calculate them by the consumption-based approach. The world’s least developed countries should be given a very long time to meet any obligations.

This four-step approach of small group negotiations based on consumption-based accounting and fair sharing of the emissions reductions could be adapted or built upon by MEF countries or another group seeking to take a leadership role.  This is what is needed most right now in the climate negotiations: leadership and cooperation by the big emitters.