A sunnier outlook from the ground up

By Bryan Walker 19/05/2012

The NZ Herald business supplement recently carried a thoughtful feature by Peter Huck in which he described moves to combat climate change at lower levels than the floundering international negotiations. He begins with a report on Desertec Industrial Initiative, the German-led consortium which this year hopes to trial in Morocco a concentrated solar power plant as the harbinger of ambitious plans to provide very large quantities of solar and wind energy to North Africa and Europe.

Huck takes this as one of the many signals that the top-down approach to limiting carbon emissions through international deals is giving way to a ground-up attitude that stresses action.  Others include the EU’s introduction of a carbon tax on airlines that use its airports; Scotland’s investment in wave power; California’s embrace of renewable energy, clean fuels, a cap-and-trade programme to limit emissions, and other green policies; Ecuador’s efforts to preserve its forests by getting donors to pay it to keep oil in the ground; China’s approval last year of its 12th Five Year Plan, which aims to tackle energy consumption and CO2 emissions. Further down the chain Huck instances a growing urgency about reducing emissions which can mean corporate investment in renewable energy, municipal emphasis on public transport, or a family insulating their home.

He produces comments from a number of people in the course of his article, one of the most direct being from GLOBE’s president, John Gummer, Lord Deben:

“The shape of the debate is changing from one about sharing a global burden – with governments naturally trying to minimise their share – to one of realisation that acting on climate change is in the national interest.”

That sent me to the GLOBE website and to the discovery of a recent article by John Gummer and John Prescott. I’ll leave Huck’s article at this point, recommending it as a good example of well-informed and scientifically aware journalism, and turn to Gummer and Prescott who develop the theme Huck reports by pointing to recent Mexican and South Korean legislation. They emphasise the significance of Mexico’s recent landmark environmental legislation, the General Law on Climate Change. Mexico is also noted as very close to approving a REDD+ forestry law that will set a benchmark for international best practice.  Added to this is the recent passage of far-reaching legislation introducing an emissions trading scheme in South Korea.

The passage of Mexico and South Korea’s law (which in both instances were supported, significantly, on a cross-party basis) highlights the remarkable progress on climate change now being made globally. A critical mass of strategically significant — often emerging — economies have made landmark climate and energy-related legislation over the last year. These countries, including China, are advancing laws at a pace that contrasts sharply with the UN-brokered climate change talks that formally convene again in Qatar in late November.

They put the trend in a global context and hail it as marking a major shift:

This trend comes at a time of pivotal change in international relations with continuing economic downturn in the West being counterpoised with the increasingly rapid shift of power to emerging economies.  Mirroring this structural shift is a fundamental repositioning of the centre of gravity of the global climate change debate towards domestic climate change legislation. This is nothing less than game changing.

They provide other examples of countries where governments are developing climate change action plans and note that with the exception of Australia there is an encouraging move towards political consensus over such action, with many legislators increasingly recognising the positive co-benefits of climate change legislation, ranging from greater resource efficiency and increased energy security to the reduction of air pollution.

Here’s the different order that this points to:

All this, in turn, mirrors a crucial shift in the political debate on climate change. Until now, it has been largely framed by the narrative of sharing a global burden – with governments, naturally, trying to minimise their share.

Now, legislators increasingly view the issue as one of national self-interest, with each nation trying to maximise the benefits of climate change legislation. Indeed, those countries with strong national legislation are already attracting most inward investment on low-carbon technologies because there is greater business certainty rather than high regulatory risk.

They acknowledge that although there is encouragement in these developments they are not yet sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change.

Nonetheless, the national legal and policy frameworks to measure, report, verify and manage carbon that are now being created have the potential of significant tightening. This will be the more likely as governments experience the benefits of lower energy use, reduced costs, improved competitiveness, and greater energy security.

However a global deal still matters, and it will be important to translate progress at national levels into such a deal during the negotiations that began at Durban and are due to finish in 2015.

Such a deal will probably only be possible when even more countries are committed to taking action on climate change because it is to their advantage rather than out of perceived altruism. In other words, such a deal will reflect domestic political conditions not define them.

The authors note that this has opened up new possibilities for progress in international agreement:

Countries that have found it hard to agree to international action are now outdoing their commitments in domestic legislation. Having taken those steps at home they will find it much easier to commit to a global agreement which confirms the decisions they have already taken of their sovereign free will.

But they warn of the danger of some developed countries lowering their long-term ambition and hardening their stances.

A curmudgeonly response from the developed world is now the biggest threat to the Kyoto process.

John Gummer, Lord Deben, is a former Conservative UK Secretary of State for the Environment; John Prescott, Lord Prescott, is a former UK Labour Deputy Prime Minister. Their joint authorship is an indication of the extent to which climate change is now a cross-party issue in many countries, as it should be.

The thesis is that countries considering their own best interests in their own constituencies are proving able to act more hopefully for the climate than when they are assembled in international negotiating forums, and further that this can in turn help break the deadlocks which are frustrating effective international action. It’s an attractive interpretation, albeit accompanied by warning about possible intransigence from some unnamed developed countries. Contemplating the possibility of groundswell achieving the necessary changes is certainly more pleasant than looking at the bleak prospects so far offered by international negotiation.

I thought of my own country New Zealand when reading the article. We seem to have persuaded many observers that our emissions trading scheme is a bold example of national initiative on climate change. But if they looked below the surface they would see that so far it is little more than a public relations exercise, weak in its effects and co-exists with a firm intention to obtain wealth from increased fossil fuel exploitation. One hopes that the examples Gummer and Prescott — and Huck — have offered have more substance than New Zealand is yet providing.

But not to be gloomy and to end on a positive note here’s a recent video from Desertec.