Localized is beautiful OR how I learned to love the UNFCCC after Cop15

I was at a panel of experts Thursday night given by FIELD entitled "Road to Mexico." (Cop16)

The consensus isn't good: for a legally binding, comprehensive, international agreement on climate change isn't likely at Cop16 in Mexico this year. And next year, Cop17 in South Africa, well... that's not looking too likely either.

But this is actually good news (and not just because it means I’m right;) ! Here's how:

I've been toying with the idea that a larger international agreement -- a fully comprehensive one-- isn't necessary, practical, or prudent.

While panelists stressed the need to get going immediately, Jan Hyvarinen (Director, FIELD) said, “concrete stuff on the ground is important this year. This year in a way needs to be a year of implementation and that will help bring the trust.” Panelist and LDC group Chair Bruno Sekilo from Ghana said that trust had gone from the process after Cop15. He sited the circus surrounding Obama’s appearance as a key undermining factor, saying “later it’s said he’s not coming to the end because it’s the outcome that is more acceptable to him. You have a group of negotiators here and they hear that the outcome is already known in the first place so that Obama can come. That was really demoralizing and it’s the timing of everything.”

Trust, the panel explained, will be built by countries doing individual adaptation and mitigation actions on their own to show, ostensibly, how committed they are to combatting climate change.

The audience, full of environmentalists, NGOs, and other professionals all echoed the itchiness to get going with climate change and not wait for certain countries that might never come a long.

Andy from Oxfam asked: “Is it not time to actually plow ahead and forge alliances between European Union, progressive countries and G77 and go ahead and start mapping out those norms and principles and rules that a majority of the world does agree are actually needed to start tackling this problem? And let the United States and other countries come along later, as and if they will.”

An audience member from ICE and a barrister both asked if perhaps now would be the best time for countries like certain small island states to bring proceedings in international courts against developed countries who have fallen short of their Kyoto emissions cuts or aren’t willing to cut emissions according to what’s dictated by the science.

Damian Morris from Sandbag asked about the possibility of global energy sector emissions cap, saying that power is the single largest sector and represents ⅓ of world wide carbon emissions, it’s capable of deeper cuts than whole economies, the global power sector could cut 60% by 2030, power cuts by biggest electricity emitters could widen Kyoto cuts 40%.

Panelist Camilla Toulmin (Director, IIED) said that it was perhaps best for countries to do what needed to be done, and that other countries’ efforts might goad those lagging behind on climate action into progress.

The undercurrent running through all of this is rather obvious: ultimately, what will matter most is localized solutions to combat climate change.

At a sociological level, we related better to each other face to face. If we think about that and extend it to policy, the discourse in international development policy has stopped being about finding a model for development but involving individual stakeholders to find solutions that work for them based on culture and geographical location (habitat) (i.e. what works in Guatemala won’t in Guyana). The success or lack thereof in combating climate change will come at a local level.

According to the OECD report on cities, “Local governments in OECD countries are already responsible for 70% of public investment and 50% of public spending in environment.” The report also says that local level policies are excellent incubators to “fine-tune national enabling frameworks.” Hint: keywords used; the words framework and enabling both imply broad policy measures, specificity is to left to the local level to figure out what works best in a given environment.

It’s worth noting that the most successful reforms whether it be in environment or development or governance work when national governments allow for autonomy in local governance to experiment. The largest examples of this are China’s democracy experiments (varying provinces and towns to varying degrees) and Kerala in India, not to mention 10:10 in the UK.

The same must be for an international climate agreement. Certain issues will be necessary to flush out at an international level, and others must be left up to individual countries to flush out for themselves and perhaps compete with each other on (in a good natured sort of way-- not the sort that leads to trade protectionism and sanctions).

At the international level, it is clear that there will need to be unified metrics for carbon emissions and tracking. This is the most important. There will also need to be clear regulatory framework that can be used at national levels to govern carbon offsets as well as some sort of international clearing house for carbon offsets that will also allow seamless carbon trading across borders.

But things like sectoral caps on emissions, carbon price floors (and ceilings) should be left to national governments. It will be left to municipal governments (state, city, village level) to come up with the best transport, resource distribution channels (food, water, for example) based on local capabilities and income levels.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that there have been many intercity and inter-region cooperative agreements about climate change adaptation already. The state of California (combined state and city level) may in fact now be more involved with equivalent level governments in China than either national governments are themselves (which offers further support of the notion that California really need to be its own country;). Five cities in the Mediterranean region (Fez, Barcelona, Haifa, Stuttgart, and Nouakchott) signed an agreement in January to agree to collaborate on innovative solutions to climate change. The EU and South Africa will be collaborating on transport reform in the run up to the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Olympics. And more news of small collaborative unions like these hit the news everyday.

As to finance, it’s been clear for some time that financiers are ready to get the money flowing towards profits coming from a low-carbon future. This is everything from increasing supply chain sustainability and efficiency to profiting on carbon trading. Insurers are calling for businesses to factor climate change into risk management. Up until now financiers have insisted they need firm national policy. Let’s see how fast that changes as the UNFCCC process drags on for years.

As a climate agreement is hashed out in however many years (and it will take years), as international and national governments drag their feet on policy it is up to regional and municipal governments to push ahead with what needs to be done. We need to recognize what can realistically be achieved at each level of governance and allow that guide advocacy. This non-sense about pushing for an absolute legal agreement at Cop16 will not help to achieve the desired outcome and instead foster frustration and negativity and cannot be productive.

Localize solutions and the future will be clean and green.


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Ann is a freelance new media journalist, educated in Finance Economics. She considers herself to be a citizen of the world, though she is American by nationality, and a legal resident of the state of Wisconsin (yeah, go ahead and chuckle). See her other blog: Missing The Bear.
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