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Climate change: new game, new rules, new outcome

About the author
Adam Poole works in the company Engineering Relation. He previously ran an African-affairs consultancy whose projects included helping return Nigeria to democracy.

The world is gathering in Nairobi, Kenya, to monitor progress in addressing climate change and implementing the successor to the Kyoto protocol that will be needed in 2012. At this important moment in the global politics of climate change, an essential truth about them must become clear if progress is to be made: that the core issue is equity.

Equity is a dangerous word to use. People see it and think "utopia", and then they say, "but power politics do not work like that". They are right, but in the climate-change arena, power politics do not work like they used to.

We all know how the rules work when we are in competition for a scarce resource: coercion, implicit or explicit, is an ever-present part of the equation. The atmosphere, because there is a limit to the amount of CO2 (plus other greenhouse gases) it can safely contain, is also a scarce resource.

The Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change conference held in Exeter, western England, on 1-3 February 2005, put the safe CO2 concentration limit at 400 parts per million by volume (ppmv). As we are currently at 380 ppmv, it means, in a sense, there is only "5% of the atmosphere" left. We are in competition over this 5% but have to play a new game by a different set of rules - the first and most fundamental of which is negotiation.

All nations have unimpeded access to the atmosphere and it is difficult to see how either sanctions or military force can be of much use in compelling countries to reduce their "atmospheric consumption". Countries will agree to cut atmospheric consumption only if the basis for doing so is seen as rational and equitable: in the climate-change game, equity is all we have.

Adam Poole studied African history at Stirling University and SOAS and then ran an African-affairs consultancy whose projects included helping return Nigeria to democracy. He now works in engineering

Also in openDemocracy on the politics of global climate change:

Tom Burke, "Climate change: time to get real"

(29 September 2006)

Simon Zadek, "Accountability: the other climate change" (31 October 2006)

Andrew Simms, "The climate-change choice" (1 November 2006)

John Elkington, " After Stern: fixing the climate machine"
(2 November 2006)

The next step

The Kyoto protocol is not equitable since the rights to pollute that it allows are, in effect, a function of existing GDP. Kyoto does not look to disturb the relative proportions by which countries pollute; it only asks (Annex 1) that all developed nations reduce emissions by the same percentage. Kyoto is unfair and lacks rationality; nor is it working even on its own terms, because vast areas of the world either not signed or (the United States and Australia, most significantly) have signed but have no intention to ratify.

The real task, as the world gathers for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference in Nairobi (6-17 November 2006), is to agree a global cap on CO2 emissions as close to 400 ppmv as soon as possible, a timescale for reaching it and a formula for sharing out the atmospheric resource that remains.

This formula has to be equitable to work and this means an allocation of atmospheric shares based on the number of people in each country. This is "contraction-and-convergence" (C & C). Contraction is the process of agreeing the CO2 limit and the timescale for achieving it; convergence is the process of living within this cap on the basis of equal per-capita "atmospheric shares" that can be traded within and between countries, and particularly between the global north and south.

Contraction-and-convergence is a mature position, endorsed in Britain by five out of the seven major political parties and by an increasing number of organisations and individuals (as well as the subject of several articles on openDemocracy; see, for example, Aubrey Meyer, "The only game in town", 1 August 2002).

David Miliband, Britain's environment minister who will be at Nairobi, has said that C&C was the basis of his first ever parliamentary question. (The full details of the C&C model are available at the Global Commons Institute website).

Kenya is expected formally to propose contraction-and-convergence at the Nairobi conference. It comes at a time when the end of Kyoto is in sight - it expires in 2012, and the debate as to how to replace it has already started. In a sense, this is part of the timing of the Stern report - the result of a review commissioned by Britain's Treasury into the economics of climate change, conducted by former World Bank economist Nicolas Stern.

The report, published on 30 October, is the wake-up call we need. It shows that if we act now, we can easily afford the cost of stabilising greenhouse-gas emissions in the range of 450-550 ppmv CO2e. This is significantly above the target that the Exeter conference told us we needed, but then should we be surprised that economics trumps science?

Stern is less clear on the global framework that will be necessary for achieving a global CO2. He comes close, however, when he writes: "There is no single formula that captures all dimensions of equity, but calculations based on income, historic responsibility and per capita emissions all point to rich countries taking responsibility for emissions reductions to 60%-80% from 1990 levels by 2050".

This is actually a more extreme position. When you move beyond the C&C position and seek to capture "all dimensions of equity" and the historic responsibility, you are actually talking about a "per-capita plus" distribution of atmospheric shares. This means, that because the majority of emissions historically came from the developed nations, the share of the remaining "5%" going to the developed world should be disproportionate in its favour. It is hard to argue against this, but for now, perhaps Nicholas Stern and others should just accept the more modest proposal coming from Kenya?


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