New Thinking on Global Climate Governance

While international negotiations on climate change continue to stall, innovative action to address it goes on in a wide range of places and involving a dizzying array of actors. Most people have tended to place their hopes on a single international treaty that will make authoritative decisions binding everyone to deal with climate change. However, in response to the continued problems of this “mega-multilateral” approach, scholars and practitioners are turning their attention to thinking about how an interstate treaty might act as co-ordinator and facilitator of these many other activities, as opposed to ‘one ring to bind us all’.

In many ways, climate change politics resembles nothing so much as the film Groundhog Day. Every now and again we get more evidence of the character of climate impacts: the past two years have given us extreme droughts, Hurricane Sandy, ice storms and the ‘polar vortex’, just to limit our attention to North America. And just as regularly, climate deniers dredge up increasingly implausible stories about why these events have nothing to do with climate change.

A treaty may be primus inter pares, but need not solve all of the problems of climate change.

We also get the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN climate change convention. In December of each year, when these conferences take place, hopes are raised; each year, the negotiations drag on interminably before some face-saving document is produced that nobody really believes in.

But we also recurrently now get evidence of many actors around the world taking action to both adapt to climate change and limit the emissions that cause it. For example, we can see the largest solar energy plant in the world being constructed in India, the dramatic reductions in costs of solar energy in recent years (80% cost reductions since 2008), collaboration among cities around the world to develop low carbon strategies, and the recurrent reports of the Carbon Disclosure Project concerning action by business to limit emissions. According to Navroz Dubash and colleagues, fully 67% of global emissions were covered under some form of national climate legislation in 2012, as opposed to 45% in 2007.

Still, there is a striking mismatch between the rhetorical expressions of urgency and the dramatic evidence of action in many parts of the world, on one hand, and the inability to generate a substantive international agreement that might accelerate such action, on the other.

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Much of this mismatch is because we expect far too much of intergovernmental negotiations. We tend to want a single treaty dealing with all the complex issues at once: reducing emissions, distributing the burden, helping people to adapt, financing change in poor countries and so on. Matthew Hoffmann’s notion of ‘mega multilateralism’ to describe this approach is apt. Things have arguably reached the point where Einstein’s statement about insanity being doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results applies.

Yet behind the scenes, there are there are hints of a fresh approach to an international treaty. At the latest COP in Warsaw in 2013, negotiators talked about the distinction between a ‘facilitative’ and a ‘prescriptive’ approach. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose Working Group III report on policy responses is due out later this year, embeds the international treaty process in a much broader range of collaborative arrangements among cities, national governments, NGOs, private sector organisations, and so on. A treaty may be primus inter pares, but need not solve all of the problems of climate change.

A recent workshop in India brought together a number of scholars, negotiators and other policy practitioners to work on how these novel ways of connecting intergovernmental negotiations to broader transnational corporation processes might be further developed and understood. The discussions connected discussions of cooperation to the increasing realization that climate change is not best thought of as a traditional collective action problem (which focuses attention on free rider problems, information and communication, power relations and the like), but rather as a transformational problem. Focusing on the transformation of the global economy to decarbonise it proved useful in identifying the sorts of things that only governments can do (both on their own and together) as opposed to things that range of many other actors can do better. As well, this focus highlighted the relations that must be fostered among various agents in order to trigger transformational processes.


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This approach doesn’t offer a magic bullet to solve the negotiation process. Nor, on the other hand, does it suggest that international negotiations are an irrelevant sideshow; far from it. But it does suggest the importance of stripping down the negotiations to issue of what obligations countries are going to undertake to reduce their own emissions and help others adapt to climate change.

Investors, for example, need certainty with respect to states’ intentions concerning emissions limits. They will be spending trillions over the next decade investing in new energy infrastructure that will have effects on emissions for generations; whether they invest in low-carbon or high-carbon infrastructure is critical. For the most part, governments’ role is simply that of sending signals to investors about what is going to be profitable over that time period. Some political actors recognise this—as in the EU’s decision to set a 40% reduction target (along with various other implementation goals to achieve it) as far ahead as 2030. Investors need goals on these time scales in order to be able to plan accordingly.

Relatively simple decisions by governments such as these could have transformational effects through shaping investors’ activities. In that sense, governments don’t need to get involved in detailed negotiations over accounting systems for carbon emissions, for example, since the accountants are doing that themselves in any case. They simply need to concentrate on providing the overall set of goals within which other actors can plan as well as experiment and innovate.

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