What climate action can we expect in 2014?

Top-down talks have failed, now local forces are gathering strength

The year just passed may be remembered as a watershed year in climate policy.  While climate impacts seem to be occurring more quickly than scientists have ever predicted, we may have witnessed in 2013 the permanent failure of 22 years of United Nations-led climate talks and the “top down” solutions these championed.  Emerging instead, with strong momentum, are “bottom up” approaches anchored around citizens, consumer movements, the private sector, countries and local governments.

Climate Talks going nowhere

While the majority of countries at the Warsaw UN Climate Talks seemed to be in denial about how the world has changed since the UNFCCC (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) was conceived, body languages – and outcomes - were clear.

Developed economies are clearly split between the ostrich-like Australia, Canada and Japan, either in denial or in outright obstructive mode; a schizophrenic US, rapidly emerging as the number one fossil fuel energy producer in the world yet cracking down on coal-burning power plants in the U.S. and abroad; and do gooders at the European Union, hampered by a slow-moving European governance structure.  Without a unified front from the formerly rich countries, almost all of whom have tighter purses after the 2008 crisis, a cacophony of positions emerges at the UN Climate Talks but little of substance is agreed on.  Don’t expect this to change at the UN Climate Talks in Lima in 2014 or in Paris in 2015.

Developing economies have also moved on and are no longer the heterogeneous group they were: Some, like China and India, are now responsible for the majority of the growth in emissions going forward and therefore expected to contribute their fair share to any bill, but won’t; while others are increasingly vulnerable to the effects of climate change (small island states, less developed countries) and no longer willing to shield the Indians and the Chinese from their responsibilities. Saudi Arabia and certain other oil-producing states like Russia, mistaking the UN climate talks for an OPEC get together, are also keen on making sure only impossible solutions, or non-solutions, are voted through.

The consensus-based approach of the UN Climate Talks guarantees nothing decisive is likely to emerge in the next few years from these forums, except the certainty that thousands of Government officials will continue to dutifully turn up for weeks of non-meetings featuring non-negotiations.

Bottom-up change

Expect two dynamics to drive climate action over the next few years: Baby steps (in other words no major initiatives, short of a climate change-induced calamity which mobilizes action on a big scale and overcomes the current political inertia) and a bottom-up approach, taking over with rapidly increasing momentum.  Underpinning the bottom up approach are a confluence of factors likely to sound much more strident notes in 2014.

First, there seems to be more effective pressure from activists and fractivists to fight fossil fuel subsidies worldwide.  While 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day, unnecessary, wasteful fossil fuel subsidies benefiting profitable polluters such as the oil and gas or the steel industries amount to $5 billion a day (!).

Second, climate action is increasingly dependent on the private sector (which already accounts for 62% of climate finance flows according to the Climate Policy Initiative) and crystallized around carbon pricing:  According to the Brookings Institute, from 2013 onward, 3 billion people in 36 countries, 11 sub-national jurisdictions in the United States and Canada, and seven cities and provinces in China (and from 2016, all of China) are covered by Emissions Trading Schemes.  Other countries are considering market options or have already implemented them, for example India via the introduction of traded renewable energy certificates.  The private sector likely will be implementing more climate friendly projects, incentivised by renewable energy support or its mirror image, decreasing fossil fuel subsidies.

Renewables emerge

Third, under the radar screen, renewable energy is poised to beat all growth forecasts – but not through more growth where the International Energy Agency might expect it (i.e. in the Western solar and wind markets).  Rooftop solar infrastructure and pay-as-you-go solar services are taking off rapidly in the poor countries housing those 80% making less than $10 a day. Expect a massive solar PV market to emerge in the emerging markets of Africa and Asia, displacing the need for more coal-fired power plants.

Fourth, cities and local authorities, where politicians hover closer to their voters, are building in climate resiliency everywhere from Byblos, Lebanon, to New York City (which unveiled a $20 billion climate resilience plan) to Quito, Ecuador.  Spurred on by NGO programs such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, they are rebuilding wetlands, re-engineering shore defences and implementing many other climate adaptation measures.

China encapsulates this fundamental shift in climate policy dynamics.  Still pounding the tables at the UN Climate Talks with 20-year old policy positions which put other delegates to sleep, its climate action at home has been nothing short of majestic:  Chinese public opinion has forced multiple steps to be adopted to combat local air pollution (including potentially sentencing very bad actors to death), economic growth is increasingly becoming secondary to its people’s health and for good measure, it is unveiling the largest carbon pricing initiatives (both carbon markets and carbon taxes) in the world.