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Cancun : towards a “whole world” solution ?

At the climate change negotiations in Cancun, Ireland was at the centre of a process aimed at finding innovative solutions to the global climate problem. Details of the project were presented at a side-event organised by Ireland in conjunction with the United Nations Environment Programme and World Resources Institute. As governments struggled to find a satisfactory solution, this new initiative proposes a parallel evaluation of the different climate change scenarios based on a ‘whole world’ perspective. Touteleurope spoke to Richard Douthwaite, an economist and representative of the Irish thinktank Feasta which is at the origin of this ambitious project.

Touteleurope : Can you explain the Irish climate change initiative presented in Cancun ?

Richard Douthwaite : Feasta has been interested in Climate change some time as it is a major source of instability. We have developed an approach to dealing with fossil fuel emissions called “Cap and share” .

At our climate group was meeting about two years ago we discussed how we could get the idea accepted or at least debated internationally. Feargal Duff one of our members, and a former employee of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), approached the UNEP to carry out a peer review of the various proposals for a global climate framework which would be based on a “whole world solution” rather than a nation by nation solution.
Feasta (Foundation for the economics of stability) aims to identify the characteristics (economic, cultural and environmental) of a truly sustainable society, articulate how the necessary transition can be effected and promote the implementation of the measures required for this purpose. See the Feasta website for more information.
The problem with the present Kyoto type approach that the UN is following is that it is up to each country, or group of countries like the EU, to come up with an offer to cut their emissions by a certain date. You have to hope that all the offers, and they are only being made by the wealthy countries, add up to enough reductions to deal with the problem.

In our opinion, a quite different approach is needed that looks at what the world needs to do as a whole and then divides up the work that has to be done by nations in an equitable way. We wanted UNEP not just to look at our proposal, but to look at other similar proposals that exist in order to devise a global approach.

The idea is that the major groups who have prepared climate change proposals could work together in a peer review process to look for the positive and negative points in each other’s initiatives and see if they could come up with a hybrid proposal which would be better than the individual proposals of each NGO or thinktank.

We received a very good reaction from UNEP on the basis of the support of the Irish Government and the Green Minister for the Environment, Mr Gormley, who wrote to ask the UNEP to set up this peer review process. The UNEP cannot act by itself. It is only after Copenhagen had clearly failed that the Irish Government agreed to send a request to UNEP.

Touteleurope : Would the “whole world” approach lead to more ambitious objectives ?

R.D. : Yes very much so ! A number of people are coming to realize that we have already too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The Kyoto negotiations started a long time ago. It was then thought that there was still space in the atmosphere for further emissions (550/650 parts per million seemed to be feasible at the time). The whole approach was based on the premise that the richer countries should slow down their emissions for the poorer countries to catch up.

This is now completely out of date. Organisations such as advocate 350 parts / million in the atmosphere which is 10% below the current targets ; other observers say it needs to be less than 320 parts per million. Every tonne of CO2 that is omitted will have to be clawed back from the atmosphere in some way. The problem is thus completely different and this hasn’t been generally recognised. We wanted to start a process that would look at what targets are really needed.
Cap and Share - what is it ?
It’s much easier to cap the fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas - entering the economy (on the left-hand side of the picture), than to try to control the emissions they cause.
So Cap & Share is what is called an “upstream system” . The cap is enforced by requiring the fossil fuel suppliers to have permits to bring fossil fuels into the economy. The number of permits determines the size of the cap. Read more here.

There has been a lot of reluctance towards the peer review process from the international climate professionals. They have been working very hard trying to make the Kyoto protocol work. Understandably, they don’t want to admit that, in fact, what they are doing probably can’t work and is probably inadequate anyway. This reluctance has been one of the major obstacles that we have been trying to overcome to establish a more realistic process.

Touteleurope : Which organisations are involved in this new UNEP process ?

R.D. : The composition of the group is a major topic of discussion. The process began slowly in July. UNEP have called on the World Resources Institute (WRI) to run the evaluation programme. The WRI is a well-resourced NGO known for its impressive work on biodiversity. They have produced a draft report on what they are proposing to do, however, the parameters of this peer review process are still under discussion.

There is also a key issue of the logic at the centre of the process. WRI’s starting position is to look at the problems facing the UN process and to see how they can be overcome. We in Feasta, however, would favour determining what targets a global climate agreement would need to be effective and see how the UN process can be changed to get this result. It is a question of perspective, which has a major impact how you then set about tackling the problem.

Touteleurope : What is the final objective of the peer review process ?

R.D. : The main objective is to keep the UN in the game. It was very nearly made irrelevant with the Copenhagen accord where a small group of countries produced an agreement in a couple of days, bypassing the UN process. The G20 may decide to do something among themselves for economic reasons but this would risk squeezing small countries out of the process. If the UN wants to remain in the game it has to be coming up with workable solutions.

Touteleurope : Which countries are involved ?

R.D. : Some countries have been approached but until this meeting was held in Cancun Ireland wanted to stamp an Irish identity on this process. It is now open for other countries to take part.

Norway and Switzerland are interested and many other countries have been contacted and are supportive. It is similar to the model of the Cluster Munitions Conference where Ireland spearheaded the movement with other countries to reach agreement on an international treaty banning cluster munitions. This climate initiative will bring together essentially the same group of countries. We would like for Ireland to do what it did with the cluster munitions and use Irish ambassadors to lobby for whatever approach emerges whether it is “Cap and Share” or another idea as long as it is an operable approach.

We believe that there is a need for specific programmes and not one major programme that tries to be all-encompassing. Let’s divide up the work on climate change into manageable chunks and have treaties for the main issues.

This peer review idea has been progressing slowly since last July. The fact that a side event had been booked at Cancun focused peoples’ minds. There is another deadline in Bonn in 6 months’ time to present the results. A lot of work has to be done if anything worthwhile is to come from this process.

Find out more :

Europe and the Environment - (FR)

Special video report on Biodiversity - (EN)

Video magazine about the Copenhagen Conference - (FR)

United Nations Environment Programme - UNEP

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