These past five weeks, I have visited Europe studying climate policy. I attended the UN’s 19th climate conference, UNFCCC COP-19, in Warsaw. After Poland, I visited Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, United Kingdom and European Union (Brussels). And I retraced my UN steps to the Middle East (Jordan) and spoke with leaders there as well.
Humanity, it is quite clear, faces a global ecological crisis – breaching four of the nine planetary boundaries for a safe operating space of which climate change is but one.
The scientists are telling us this, but because the idea is abstract and unprecedented, and because its impact is only just beginning to show, we have not brought ourselves to declare this formally. Nor do we have any evolved institutional capability to actually declare it, anyway, let alone effectively react with common purpose.
The international negotiations that are the UNFCCC reflect a well-intentioned effort of the 18th to 20th-century Westphalian system to solve a 21st global problem. If we had 50 to 100 years for the negotiations to run their course, we might get there. But the scientists say we have 5 years for global emissions to peak if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. At present our global emissions continue to rise, and a global agreement to begin to curb them will not take effect until seven years form now, at the earliest. We are on track to 2.5º C to 4.5º C. That is a statistical recipe for global disaster.
The only recourse is to look for global executive action to supplement the wallowing international negotiations. As noted in previous blog-posts, the Security Council is the only body, however flawed, with existing legal capacity and institutional capability to undertake global executive action.
The Council can be used, with innovative leadership at the UN, in ways that could prove effective: G-20 countries informally attending on a continuing basis, subsidiary bodies reporting in on the basis of scientific finding and economic planning, the Secretary-General appointing an eminent panel to guide him in his own reporting to the Council with proposals for action; restraint on the part of the major powers in identifying their national interests as they exercise their primary responsibility for peace on behalf of all member states, under the Charter.
But what might the UN Security Council do?
Three things, perhaps: based on the advice of the experts and an eminent panel, it could:
- Declare a global carbon budget (GCB);
- Declare national emission ranges (‘bounded flexibility’) for all member states, for 2015-50, with based on an ‘equity reference framework’ (ERF);
- Require, acting under binding powers of Chapter VII, members states to legislate a carbon price for its carbon economy within a range that reflects the ERF.
Some work has already gone into these ideas, within research institutes around the world.
- A GCB now exists within the research institute world. There is some haggling, which is a good sign – contestability is alive and well. But the concept is robust now, in 2013 – a budget appeared in IPPC’s AR-5 Working Group I report (September). Expect more of it from Working Group III in 2014.
- An Equity Reference Framework is already developed (by Climate Analytics) with principles and (four sets of) criteria; this would clearly be the toughest part of negotiation, but among perhaps 20 states rather than 155. The most vulnerable states (AOSIS) can be heard by the Council, under the Charter.
- A carbon price would perhaps start at US$30/tonne in 2015 (range US$10 to US$50), and progressively increase (the IPCC’s AR-4 identified US$50 to $100 by 2050, in 2007). Countries would be positioned, by Council decision, within that range according to the agreed ERF. It would be left to members states to determine what national measures they employ (regulation, governmental action, taxation or levy, market trading). A Monitoring Committee of the Council could assist. The Green Climate Fund would need to be more than a phrase; fully funded to help in the transformation to a global carbon-neutral economy.
Such a ‘top-down’ approach is not in vogue within UNFCCC circles, which has effectively discarded the idea of global budgeting as too difficult and, post-Doha/Warsaw, is going for bottom-up flexibility with voluntary contributions.
But that is the point. It is too difficult. It is too difficult for the UNFCCC. It is too difficult for a 195-magnitude cacophony. But if the UN Security Council, complemented by the G-20 with considerable overlap, focuses with a sense of purpose, it could be done.
With some irony, it may be easier for such work to enter the inner political-diplomatic sanctum via the Security Council than through the UNFCCC process.
The Secretary-General is convening his UN Climate Summit in September ’14. Maybe that’s the time for a Security Council summit on the subject, that day.
If it is good enough for the Council to slap binding economic sanctions on member states for various misdemeanours, and binding legislative obligations to combat global terrorism, it should be possible for it to do the same to prevent dangerous climate change.
When the Council does meet on this, it might be worth the national leaders having their families with them, in the gallery.