Five reasons the UK centre-right should back a UN climate pact

Trade partners are likely to be impacted by global warming: It’s in the national interest to cut emissions argues Ben Caldecott

Coal power generation accounts for 20% of global emissions (Photo: Lundrim Aliu / World Bank)

Five countries account for 77% of coal power capacity (Photo: Lundrim Aliu / World Bank)

By Ben Caldecott

Environmental challenges are often collective action problems that require co-ordination to solve. Such coordinated responses frequently need to happen internationally.

Anthropogenic climate change is a perfect example of this challenge – carbon pollution has the same impact wherever it is emitted and emissions are currently associated with most forms of economic activity. It is, therefore, impossible to solve without concerted collective action internationally.

Without global progress, physical climate change impacts will make it incredibly challenging to secure long-term economic sustainability.

From a UK perspective, key trade partners are likely to be seriously impacted (the US, China, India, and Australia all rank highly in terms of exposure to climate risk) and we will suffer from countless other direct and indirect impacts.

The literature on this is well-established, large, and growing.

As we approach another set-piece international negotiation in Paris in December 2015, it is worth putting that process in context, setting out what the centre-right can do as part of these efforts, and also identifying what other initiatives can be led by the UK to achieve real progress on important aspects of climate change mitigation and adaptation internationally.

The UN climate negotiations culminate annually in early December – the next such meeting is in Paris in 2015. The build up to Paris began immediately after the Durban negotiations held in December 2011.

At Durban negotiators agreed to deliver a “new and universal greenhouse gas reduction protocol, legal instrument, or other outcome with legal force by 2015 for the period beyond 2020”.

This makes Paris the last opportunity to secure such an agreement by the end of 2015 for implementation five years later.

Analysis: What could a legally binding UN climate deal look like?

This is slow and inadequate progress. But the good news is that action on climate change is only partly influenced by the negotiations – most of the on-the-ground action has very little to do with the UN process. It is largely determined by national policies and market innovation.

Copenhagen in 2009, the previous big UN climate change ‘save the world’ moment famously ended in acrimony.

Since then, clean energy investment has exploded (US$1,462 billion since the start of 2010), the price of renewables has fallen dramatically (59% for solar photovoltaics), and the world is now adding more capacity in renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined – it is now a large and mainstream sector.

So regardless of whether a UN agreement is reached, clean technologies will continue to transform markets and disrupt traditional business models remarkably quickly.

Five reasons

Nevertheless, an international deal still matters and the UK centre-right should be helping to ensure the best possible outcome.

First, the nature of climate change means that there is significant potential for ‘free riding’. To ensure that all countries contribute their fair share we need an international system able to measure, monitor, and hold countries to account.

The international process helps to keep countries ‘honest’ with respect to their emissions and progress towards targets. We also need a process that involves the countries responsible for the vast majority of emissions and the UN process does this.

Second, we need a way of setting levels of ambition and urgency. We also need a way of keeping countries in regular contact on specific climate change issues – regular formal and informal dialogue builds trust and helps ratchet up ambition over time.

Third, there are technical issues, methodologies, and scientific assessments that need to be conducted, developed, and evaluated. The international process enables ongoing technical collaboration and co-operation. The importance of this should not be underestimated.

Fourth, some countries require international climate finance to reduce emissions and adapt to current and future climate change.

There are also sources of emission reductions, such as preventing deforestation in tropical forest countries, which require financial flows into those countries that can be partly mediated via the international process.

These practical reasons, rather than grander ideas about the importance of UN processes, are why we must be active, ambitious, and vocal supporters of an agreement in Paris and beyond.

While failure at Paris will not halt progress, it would slow it down, and this would harm UK interests and disproportionately impact least developed countries.

While recognising the importance of the UN process, we should also recognise the importance of bilateral and plurilateral action and be much more active in this respect.

The UN process has significant weaknesses – not least the requirement to get universal support from all countries involved.

The NGOs and activists, and a large part of our own civil service, have placed too much faith, time, and money in the UN negotiations. Doing things outside of the UN ‘track’ is seen as undermining the sanctity of that process. That is nonsense.

Coalitions for action

What key countries should have done long ago is to identify key sectors and then mobilise the right coalitions to reduce emissions from those sectors.

Cement production, deforestation, and coal-fired power generation are three such sectors – each incredibly important accounting for 5%, 15%, and 20% of global emissions respectively.

The top five countries account for 72% of total global cement production, 47% of deforestation, and 77% of coal capacity. Sector specific agreements would be complementary to the UN process, but could be separate from it.

They would each involve the main countries responsible for emissions in a sector being brought into a negotiation process with each other and key countries to try to agree on timelines for reducing emissions.

The UK should take the lead on negotiating one such sectoral agreement by 2020 – phasing out subcritical coal-fired power stations by 2030 or a comprehensive and funded international deal to stop tropical forest deforestation would be potential options.

Just one such agreement would almost certainly yield many more net emission reductions than the entire UN process has so far. That’s not to say that such agreements are easy – they are not – but such efforts should be made and undertaken in parallel (and in a supportive, reinforcing way) to the UN track.

The fact that such efforts have not taken place is largely down to a lack of imagination and an outdated worldview, where the UN track is seen as the only way to secure progress.

We must be much more pragmatic and the centre-right should be at the forefront of reimagining British and European international climate diplomacy.

This article is an edited extract from ‘Green and Responsible Conservatism’, a new report from the Bright Blue thinktankBen Caldecott is associate fellow at Bright Blue.

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