What Future for International Climate Politics?

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Climate change has been on the global agenda for over 20 years, but international co-operation has shown mixed results. The collapse of negotiations at Copenhagen contributed to disillusionment in civil society and signaled a gradual retreat from engagement in international climate policy processes. So, a much broader perspective and fresh strategy are needed to tackle inequity and to achieve a truly sustainable socio-ecological transformation of our economies and societies.

This paper articulates concrete proposals and puts forward ideas for devising smarter strategies that make engagement by civil society in international climate policy more effective.

Report in Q&A - prepared by Bartłomiej Kozek

The authors of the new publication by the Heinrich Böll Foundation try to answer the question on a working strategy for social movements, wanting the global governments to move forward in climate action.

- What is the diagnosis of the current situation, presented by Hans Verolme, Farhana Yamin, Victor Menotti and Lili Fuhr in "What Future for International Climate Politics? A Call for a Strategic Reset"?

- The authors, who by the way have been focusing on environmental policy in their work for years, show  the extent of the grip which the fossil fuel lobby has on governments and the influence it has during the intergovernmental climate negotiations. They argue that the biggest producers of coal, oil and gas have disproportionate representation at the UNFCCC negotiation table. Both private and public companies have an interest in keeping the status quo, and some of them even support groups questioning climate science and their efforts in combating greenhouse gas emissions.

- Why do the authors call for a reset in the first place? To who is this call addressed?

- The situation mentioned above - especially after the negotiation in Copenhagen in the end of 2008, which ended in a big fiasco - created a sense of crisis and disillusionment among the ranks of environmental activists. Some of them started to question the "insider strategy" of taking part in the international climate negotiations. The authors argue that this would be a mistake, as other form of cooperation on climate issues were thought of before and none of them materialized. They also tell the readers that a new strategy for NGOs needs to be a mix of "insider" activities and grassroots mobilization.

- Isn't it too late for climate action and social mobilisation on this issue?

- No - we still got some time to break free from a scenario of a 4°C growth of the average global temperature, to which we are currently heading and which would make climate change irreversible. If the global community will be able to achieve a new, global, binding climate agreement, which will be ambitious enough, the investors' certainty with the way the global energy market will evolve should make a way for much needed investments in energy efficiency and renewables. Such an agreement, along with new objectives in global, sustainable development, can create a space for achieving global equity during the transition from a fossil fuel-based economy.

- What concrete measures the authors of the publication try to propose?

- The basis of a change of strategy needs to be a coherent narrative, shared by the main actors of the climate movement. Such a narrative can be created only after intense discussions, during which no issues should be considered taboo topics. Ideas such as increasing the transparency of NGOs' activities, deep reform or even scrapping of the European market of carbon emissions trade (ETS) and an end date of building new fossil fuel-powered power plants should be objects of intense discussions. Any viable strategy must - in their opinion - fight with the monetization of nature and put the polluter pays principle at its heart.

- Why such a strategy needs a broad political mobilisation in its favour?

- The vested interests of the fossil fuel lobby influences the policies of various (both developed and developing) countries. The climate activists cannot rely just on informal negotiations with governments and pursuing policies that intend to appease the carbon economy lobby, such as allowing it to pay for continuous polluting of the planet. A broad movement is needed to show the urgency of combating climate change and the effects it has on the least developed nations, small island states or the effect that runaway warming of the planet would have on health, housing, agriculture and other areas of life. Such a movement could also expose the ways that governments and investors are connected to the extractive industry and fossil fuel giants.

Proposals for Change

  • We need to both increase and reframe «ambition» beyond carbon metrics or emissions reductions alone and consider the planetary boundaries as well as human rights. We have to «leave it in the ground» for many reasons. Central to increasing ambition is to agree on a full phase-out of fossil fuel use and on a binding end date to the construction of fossil fuel power plants. Such an approach will have real implications for how we measure countries’ performance and equity, and it is central to the strategic reset we call for.

  • We need to «follow the money» by asking who is investing, in what, and where? At present investors are hedging their bets, and while investments in renewable energy have been rising, more money still keeps flowing towards polluting power plants and the exploration of marginal and risky fossil fuels. These projects and the companies and people involved can be identified, targeted, and stopped. The role of international financial institutions has decreased, yet it remains important. More effort is needed to identify new as well as proven tools and ways of working. Who can play what role?

  • Exposing and scandalizing fossil fuel interests in UN bodies and processes: Effectively, big oil uses diplomatic practices to hide its influence. Diplomatic protocol means that officials from other governments find it hard to challenge these practices.

  • Carbon must finally be priced according to its true, high cost. Polluters must be made to pay. This can be achieved through taxes, charges or levies, penalties, and other regulatory instruments. A decade ago, several instruments were put in place, but their efficacy was gutted after aggressive lobbying by fossil fuel interests. The EU carbon market is a case in point. At the international level, the UNFCCC has an important role to play in both authorising and co-ordinating a global shift to full cost internalisation. This is needed in order to prevent further «gaming» by states or companies.

  • Demystify carbon markets as the only available mitigation policy. A serious discussion is needed on the structural problems, power politics, and impacts of the European market, exploring both options for reform, as well as alternatives to the EU ETS beyond 2020.

  • We propose using the technology bodies of the UNFCCC to assess new technological options against a set of green criteria. Such criteria should provide guidance to parties and inform safeguards that need to be based on the human rights framework, Rio principles, and international environmental law. Such an assessment should determine whether certain technologies are eligible for international funding and whether they may be appropriately used as part of the policy mix. It needs to be recognised that the application of technologies is sensitive to scale, and civil society should be actively involved in the assessment. Certain high-risk technologies such as CCS and nuclear power need to be clearly ruled out.

  • We intend to develop an alternative gigatonne gap report that goes beyond measuring the ambition gap quantified by the UNEP etc. Such a report will score a select number of important technologies according to their social and environmental co-benefits and risks, and it will point out pathways for implementing the best-available options at scale, including outside the multilateral arena. Clearly, our report cannot ignore the debate on de-growth and planetary boundaries.

  • Civil society needs to undertake a more thorough debate on the risks of a further commodification or financialisation of nature, as well as on the implicit question of the state of democracy. Here, the climate community needs to be involved and bring lessons-learned to the table. The UNFCCC, on the other hand, needs to seriously consider the risks of new market instruments and their governance and listen to the concerns of those most affected. Much attention has been focused on the so-called «firewall» between developed and developing countries, and some call it a weakness at the core of the UNFCCC. We believe that the «firewall» has served its purpose, and that it neither needs to be removed nor reaffirmed as part of the 2015 agreement. The 2015 agreement should move beyond the current mitigation provisions by setting out a clear pathway to decarbonisation by 2050 with shorter-term targets, including a differentiated phaseout date for the construction of fossil-based power plants.

  • The question of equity is frequently seen as central to the 2015 agreement. Climate ambition and equity are inextricably connected. We believe that fair-share responsibilities (including historical responsibilities), are best assessed through an equity reference framework. However, no climate agreement can undo past crimes – so what can be done in this area? There is merit in exploring further the idea of «a truth-and-reconciliation process» that allows victims of climate change to be recognised as such and gain some form of redress. Such an approach might also help to overcome the issue of historical responsibilities, broken promises, and changing geopolitics.

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