Elwin: Re-thinking Climate Leadership

The need for leadership

On Tuesday, I attended a high-level event on Global Climate Action titled “Embracing Inclusive Multilateralism”. At this event, UN Secretary-General António Guterres gave an opening speech that really highlighted to me the urgent need for leaders (broadly speaking) in climate action. Firstly, the commitments made by countries in their Nationally-Determined Contributions (NDCs) of the Paris Agreement do not get us where we need to be to avoid catastrophic climate change: even if all countries achieve their initial NDCs, we are headed for a pathway with more than 3 degrees Celsius of expected warming. Worse still, most countries are not on-track to meet their short or long-term targets (2020 or 2050 respectively) in relation to their NDCs. What all this says is that we desperately need an acceleration of action to come from somewhere. When I initially thought up this project, I intended to focus on state actors as potential leaders, for example by coalitions of countries such as BASIC countries or the EU that would lead the way and create pressure on other countries to act via the Paris Agreement’s ratcheting-up mechanism. This kind of leadership would help overcome the barrier of countries not wanting to be an economic loser by moving first. However, through the many events I attended, I saw two distinct and familiar narratives surrounding responsibility being employed. This in my view poses a significant challenge to any state-level leadership in increasing action in the Paris Agreement.

Two different stories of responsibility

I managed to listen to Elina Bardram (representing the European Commission) speak on climate leadership at a side-event hosted at the EU Pavilion. The EU’s interpretation of responsibility (per the idea of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities [CBDR] of the Paris Agreement) can be summed up in this quote: “We can talk about who did what in the industrial revolution, but that’s not the world we live in today – many big polluters are no longer Annex I [in terms of the Kyoto Protocol].” In their view, even though they were the countries that benefitted the most from being heavy polluters early on from the industrial revolution, that does not matter much now because now some of the biggest polluters today (e.g. China and India) are developing (Annex II) countries. This line of reasoning is used by the EU to justify their weak Paris Agreement targets. For instance, Pascoe Sabido (Corporate Europe Observatory) pointed out that natural gas is a part of the EU’s core long-term strategy for 2050. Sabido critiques this because the methane emissions that come with natural gas extraction are much worse than using coal as a power source. Therefore, while the EU may at times suggest taking a leading role in things like technological development, they are not expected to lead the way in mitigation efforts because they see themselves as less responsible in the current day and age.

On the other hand, developing countries also employ an idea of responsibility to avoid taking mitigation action leadership. At a side-event titled “Towards a successful pre-2020 stocktake: addressing the action and support deficit”, JR Bhatt (representing the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change) emphasized how developed countries have not fulfilled their promises, despite being disproportionately responsible for climate change. Here, he refers to promises in terms of both financial support (the target has been set at US$100b per year to support developing countries), and mitigation action from developed countries. Therefore, although the Paris Agreement’s mechanism is intended to improve on the Kyoto Protocol by moving past the bifurcation of “Annex I” and “Annex II” countries via the CBDR concept, this dichotomy is still very much alive and a major blockade to mitigation leadership by any state or groups of states. Most developing countries have goals in their NDCs that are contingent on financial support from developed states, despite how it will be challenging to achieve the US$100b climate finance target without the US’ participation. Furthermore, Pieter Pauw’s (Frankfurt School of Finance and Management) found in his research that the costs to implement all conditional NDCs may be too high to be covered by the US$100b pledge.

What I learned: We cannot look to where we traditionally have been for leadership in the climate regime

My main takeaway from COP24 is that we cannot continue to wait in hopes that nations will spontaneously spring into action and push the climate regime into an accelerated pace. National governments are ultimately accountable to smaller groups of people – individuals, groups, communities, organizations and businesses. We need to start thinking about how we can help accelerate action at these smaller scales as a driving force for national-level action. UNSG Guterres concurred with this idea in his opening speech to the high-level Global Climate Action event, “most of the most innovative solutions are done at the regional or local level.”

Furthermore, perhaps I have overestimated the potential of international pressure for increasing ambition in the Paris Agreement. Niklas Höhne (NewClimate Institute) found in his research that ambition is more dependent on factors within rather than external from the country. This includes factors such as the potential effects on the local economy, the costs and the country’s overall mitigation potential. This research suggests that we should focus on leadership on a more local rather than international scale.

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