A rose by any other name?

Monday, 17. May 2010     0 comment(s)
Thomas Spencer
Research Assistant
International Politics of Natural Resources and the Environment research programme
                          O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

(William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)

Ah, the stubborn plurality of human opinion! A recent paper by a distinguished group of academics, including Finland’s Prof. Atte Korhola, concludes: “Copenhagen has shown the limits of what can be achieved through centralizing and hyperbolic multilateralism”. And at a recent meeting to pick up the pieces after the aforementioned Copenhagen summit, the most important environment ministers in the world “emphasized the key role of a strong and effective UN framework in providing countries with the necessary key impetus to contribute more than they are able to do in a purely domestic context”.

Who is right? Have these Sisyphean environment ministers gone uselessly back to banging their heads against the wall in the search for a global agreement? Or can climate change be better managed via a portfolio of bottom-up policies, more than the sum of its parts?

“The Hartwell Paper: A New Direction for Climate Policy After the Crash of 2009” argues for a fundamental reframing of climate policy – away from a negative imperative to reduce carbon emissions, towards a positive imperative to achieve policy goals which are worthwhile quite aside from the climate issue. The paper offers universal energy access and energy efficiency as two examples. Pursuing these inherently worthwhile goals would, it is argued, firstly be met with greater public acceptance; secondly remove the need for a complex global climate regime, and thirdly induce carbon reductions indirectly. Their framing is indirect, approaching “the object [sic] of emissions reductions via other goals, riding with other constituencies and gathering other benefits”.

This advice seems reasonable initially. The strongest forces driving “climate” policy in the USA is not concern for the climate, but the economic and geopolitical calculus of energy security and competitiveness. However, this gets us some of the way, but not nearly far enough. The fundamental reason is this: we would cook the planet before we run out of economically exploitable fossil fuels. Aside from mitigating climate change, no policy concern is sufficient to drive a radical decarbonisation of the global economy. Absent climate change as a policy motivator, there is simply no reason to go far enough.

Secondly, it is debatable whether the global pursuit of apparently win-win policies would necessarily circumvent the fraught politics of the climate debate. There would still be the same hugely powerful interests vested in the status quo; the same economic divide between North and South necessitating the sharing of technology and finance; the same as yet still unavoidable trade-off between development and carbon pollution; the same fundamental social dilemma necessitating a governance regime.

Ultimately, as the paper’s authors acknowledge, we arrive where we started - with the challenge of fundamental decarbonisaton of the global economy. This is in fact two challenges: reducing the cost of clean technologies until they become competitive with coal; and sharing the burden as long as the cost differential remains. The Hartwell paper doesn’t propose convincing solutions to either challenge.

Firstly, the paper argues that governments have a much greater role to play in energy research, development and deployment (RRD), in order to drive down the cost of clean technology. Undoubtedly, this is true – public investment in energy research and development (R&D) has declined precipitously since the 80s, and is woefully inadequate. But it’s also quite clear that government can’t do it alone, indeed the paper warns of the efficiency risks of government allocation of economic resources. A price signal and complementary regulation are needed to stimulate private action across the whole economy.

In other words, we are back with climate policy. Here the authors argue for a small, global, hypothecated (i.e. ear-marked) carbon tax. This would also be used to equitably finance the transition a low-carbon economy. Frankly, this is a dead end – negotiating a domestic carbon tax is hard enough (the EU tried and failed in the early 90s); negotiating any meaningful global carbon tax with revenue sharing is dead on arrival for the foreseeable future. To leverage meaningful economic change and financial resources, the tax would need to be sufficiently high, implying an inherent trade-off between political feasibility and effectiveness. If this was supposed to circumvent the politics of climate change, it won’t.

In spite of its shortcomings, the Hartwell paper makes a valuable contribution to the climate debate. It is undoubtedly true that, in order to generate short-term public buy-in, climate policy needs to be linked more explicitly with other, immediately desirable, policy agendas. It is also true (as UPI has argued here and here) that a binding, “top-down” climate regime for all countries is unfeasible for now, and a hybrid approach between binding international targets and domestic policy portfolios will be necessary. There is also much merit in the suggestion of addressing different aspects of human beings’ impact on the climate via separate instruments, differentiating for example between long-lived and short-lived green house gasses.

But ultimately, we can’t get away from calling a rose a rose: setting targets (i.e. an emissions cap) to establish a strong enough price on carbon is the only way forward. Only thus can change be induced across the whole economy. And as the environment ministers know from experience, a robust global regime is needed to give countries confidence “to contribute more than they are able to do in a purely domestic context”. The Sisyphean environment ministers were right to return to rolling their rock up the hill, but they will also need creative ideas, like those proposed in the Hartwell paper, to make any progress.

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