Last year’s media hype before the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen conveyed the message to the public: The COP 15 in Copenhagen would be “too big to fail”. With a new US President in the White House who was willing to negotiate a follow-up treaty for the Kyoto Protocol, the time for a global answer to the challenge of climate change seemed to have come.
After Copenhagen, we have to realize that “it failed because it was too big”. Even though it might be desirable to have a global agreement among all 192 states on the importance of the issue and the measures that should be taken to combat climate change, the diversity of national interests will prevent a comprehensive outcome of negotiations with all parties.
Furthermore, any global climate change negotiation comes down to divergent concepts of global justice, the fair distribution of resources and economic opportunities. Thus, COP negotiations will end in deadlock considering the question of how much more Western, early-industrialized states are obliged and/or willing to contribute to combat climate change due to their historical debt than newly industrializing nations like the BRIC-countries, who are nowadays the main polluters.
A comprehensive international agreement on the mitigation of climate change is difficult to achieve, since preconditions for negotiations are exactly a reversal of the factors which enhance the success of the protection of the "Global Commons." The urgency and the level of threat are difficult to perceive since climate change is a highly abstract concept and removed from traditional security considerations. Scientific debate about the extent of anthropogenic climate change is vivid and a consensus on mitigation measures is improbable since climate is a highly complex ecological system, whose reactions to influences are difficult to predict, even in simplified scientific models.
Furthermore, an effective global verification and compliance mechanism is difficult to create and a “some lose-some win” result of negotiations more likely than a “win-win” outcome. Nevertheless, the US and Europe should try to, especially, improve the later two factors to enhance the possibility of a comprehensive global climate change treaty. So what can diplomats learn from successful environmental treaties?
There are several ways in which the EU and US could lead the combat against climate change. Smaller transatlantic, regional and international cooperation forums with fewer actors should be created which will prepare the ground for a global treaty. The EU and US could demonstrate what a comprehensive verification and compliance mechanism would look like and enhance trust in the credibility of their efforts as well as in verification and compliance mechanisms.
A more pragmatic solution would be a global carbon emission permit trading system between states or industries. This often proposed system is unlikely to be established soon on a global scale, since negotiations involve too many actors. The EU has established a carbon trade mechanism. The existing mechanism is not very effective since it has issued too many permits, thus, not achieving the possible reduction of CO2 emissions.
United States SO2 (sulfer dioxide) emission permit trading is an example of an effectively functioning permit trading scheme. A useful cooperation mechanism for the US and Europe would be the creation of joint market for greenhouse gas emission permits. Permits for industrial production, which would be tradable in a joint European/North American market, would create an effective verification mechanism for greenhouse gas emission targets. At the same time, it would send a signal towards other states like China, Russia and India about the seriousness of Western efforts to curb the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
Any negotiations about trade preferences and free trade areas (FTA's) with the EU and US could be bound to the integration of the potential trading partner into the greenhouse gas emission permits trading system. Latin American countries for example could, thus, probably be easily convinced to join such emission reduction efforts.
The revenues could be spent, partly to enhance joint research projects and initiatives in the field of new energy systems and emission reducing technology, partly on climate change mitigation and adaptation projects. Examples could include reforestation initiatives and emergency systems for future climate refugees. Additionally, the US and Europe should of course try to make new technology accessible to less-developed countries through technology transfer schemes.
Furthermore, the Europe and America should try to engage OPEC as well as large oil companies and energy corporations in the process of the solution to climate change by incentivizing low carbon methods. The success of the Montreal Protocol of 1987 for the protection of the ozone layer is an example how commercial interests can enhance the possibility of a comprehensive governance of the global commons.
Producers of the ozone layer destroying CFCs were at the same time the producers of the more expensive substitute chemicals. Thus, the Vienna Convention of 1985 and the Montreal Protocol of 1987, which included financial mechanisms supporting poorer Third World countries to compensate producers for additional costs of compliance, were an economic opportunity for the producer.
Nevertheless, profitable “win-win” outcomes of a low carbon future are more difficult to achieve in climate change negotiations, since it is a multi technology problem, which cannot be solved by one substitute. The US and EU should try to engage OPEC, oil companies and energy corporations in the development of a low carbon energy security strategy to overcome deadlock in climate change negotiation.
Furthermore, Europe should try to engage Russia in talks on climate change and mitigation measures. The catastrophic wild fires and prolonged period of extreme heat this summer might have increased the willingness of Russian leaders to cooperate on the issue and treat climate change not just as an opportunity to win agricultural land in the permafrost area, but more as challenge with unpredictable outcomes.
Since cooperation between the West and newly industrialized states did not work in the UNFCCC, the US and Europe should try to engage these states by creating new possibilities for cooperation in different forums, which might yield “spill-over” effects for climate change mitigation measures.
Looking at historical international treaties on the global commons, especially the Outer Space Treaty and the Arctic Treaty, one can observe that the probability of an agreement increases as security aspects or feared militarization of the commons are involved. Geo-engineering and “climate engineering” are new scientific fields whose knowledge could be used for both civilian and military technology.
The Anglo-American project of geo-engineering is highly controversial, solely due to its unpredictable risk. In a few years, scientists might be able to influence the global climate with geo-engineering measures. It could mean that the climate in China remains stabilized, while it changes dramatically in India or other regions and causes extreme rainfalls and catastrophic draughts.
Although, the technology of “climate engineering” might still be in its infancy against the provisions of the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques 1977 (ENMOD), Chinese scientists tried to cause rainfalls around Beijing in 2008 and geo-engineering possibilities have also entered the Western debate about climate change mitigation measures.
The US, Europe and the BRIC nations should realize the potentially high security threat which military use of “climate engineering technology” would contain. An international treaty should ban the development of militarily used “climate engineering technology” as well as unilateral geo-engineering attempts which might influence the weather in one state to the better, while leading to catastrophic weather conditions in another country.
The militarization of the climate problem might be able to convince the US Congress and Senate to support stronger mitigation actions. Negotiations on the “ban of unilateral climate engineering” between the industrialized and newly industrialized states, which are the most likely to develop such technology- namely the US, the European States and BRIC-countries- could enhance cooperation in climate change mitigation measures among these important actors as “spill-over” effects.
To conclude, existing climate change negotiations face unfavourable preconditions in global negotiations. The EU and US should try to engage newly industrialized countries by:
- Leading by example and enhancing transatlantic cooperation
- Increasing the possibility of cooperation with BRIC states by incorporating negotiations into traditional security and disarmament treaties
- Considering options to enhance the threat level to increase states willingness to negotiate
- Identifying opportunities to engage single states in climate change talks due to national developments and catastrophes
Dominik Hübner is from Ehingen an der Donau in Baden-Württemberg and studies Sustainable Development at the University of St. Andrews.
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