Waiting for Godot. This time in Paris, December 2015.
By 1992, it was said that the climate convention — then to be signed at Rio de Janeiro — would not solve the global warming problem, but rather form a basis for future negotiations. Twenty-three years later, this “build in and it will come” approach is still around. In the absence of a control regime to minimize the global commons problem, appealing promises and renewed victory statements will only prolong the climate policy waiting game.
A durable infrastructure for a pledge-and-review system is the most likely outcome of a Paris deal, to be agreed by 197 Parties to the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December 2015. In no other area has voluntary action succeeded as a solution to the problem of undersupply of a public good. Still, this seems to be the only politically feasible strategy in the UN space, as two decades of negotiations have failed to solve the prevailing free-riding problem in climate policy.
With the refusal of the US Congress to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the global commons problem was manifested at its highest strength. US became the first and major free-rider of the climate change regime, on the complacent presumption that it ultimately determines what can be done in major international affairs and furthermore play that OECD action alone is both economically inefficient and pointless, because of future growth from developing countries. Staying carbon-intensive provided an advantageous position to negotiate a global agreement and informed other 196 nations how the carbon intensity of one’s economy could award him compensation to bring them on board.
The COP 15 held in Copenhagen in 2009 was expected to correct this failure, shaping a new climate regime whereby the US and emerging economies would assume quantitative commitments. In reality, the conference created the perfect storm for the lowest possible level of decision making. A pledge-and-review system was put in place, similar to an income tax system in which each household is allowed to freely determine its fiscal contribution. Through this approach, nations locked a global response to the wrong scale and pace needed to limit warming and minimize climate change risks.
A clear example of these failing choices is that the world’s emissions have risen from 30GtCO2eq/year in 1970 to 49 GtonCO2eq/year in 2010. Business-as-usual projections point to a 60 GtCO2e annual emissions in 2030. As part of the Paris COP 21 negotiations, individual countries submitted voluntary pledges, leading to a 56.7 GtCO2e annual emissions in 2030.
According to the IPCC, remaining above 55GtCO2e in 2030 means “increasing the difficulty of the transition to low long-term emissions levels and narrowing the range of options consistent with maintaining temperature change below 2oC relative to the pre-industrial levels”. The enthusiasts of the pledge-and-review approach argue that the Paris deal can deal with the insufficiency of current pledges through a ratcheting mechanism, that would keep alive the hopes for more ambitious mitigation of emissions in the coming years. The narrative is that it would “enable an upward spiral of ambition over time”. However, the “time” part is what is most concerning. Cumulative emissions will remain in the atmosphere for centuries. There isn’t a button to press and make instantaneous emissions reductions, reversing harms within a few years or decades. Irreversible climate changes due to carbon dioxide emissions have already taken place, and future carbon dioxide emissions would imply further irreversible effects on the planet, with attendant long legacies for choices made by contemporary society.
In the famous Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot”, two characters wait endlessly and in vain for the arrival of someone named Godot. Like in Becket’s play, the world has been waiting for a solution to arise from the negotiation process. Notwithstanding, it is as clear the UNFCCC lacks the problem-solving capacity to come up with a bold cooperative solution to climate change, as it gets clear in the play that Godot will never show up.
The challenge is, therefore, to halt and reverse emissions. In reality, it means decarbonizing economies, not just slowing down emissions as it will not prevent the rise in atmospheric GHG concentration. One possible solution is the formation of clubs outside the UN, in which members would pursue a common carbon price and non participants would be penalized through trade tariffs. This is somehow what the Montreal Protocol has done for ozone depletion control. This is also what NATO and multilateral trade agreements deploy to limit free-riding behavior in the international security and commerce arenas.