Reading group on Five Times Faster #2: Rethinking the diplomacy of climate change

10 July 2023

Cambridge Zero Policy Forum reading group on Five Times Faster #2: Rethinking the diplomacy of climate change

Reported by Gabrielle Admans, PhD Student, Department of Pharmacology, University of Cambridge

How can the game of diplomacy be changed to achieve positive climate action five times faster?

This was the overarching theme of the diplomacy chapters of Simon Sharpe’s book Five Times Faster, Rethinking the Science, Economics, and Diplomacy of Climate Change. In a second Cambridge Zero Policy forum reading group session, an open conversation was held by academics and students from across the university, and Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger (Leverhulme Trust Visiting Chair in Sustainable Development Law and Policy, University of Cambridge) provided opening remarks on these sections of the book. The discussion was centred on the key themes and propositions made by Simon Sharpe, as well as the role of the University of Cambridge in promoting transformative diplomacy.

Below is a summary of the main discussion points which arose:

The value of insider journalistic voices in the COP process

Despite the media hype around each international climate summit, the general population receives a very different perspective on proceedings to those involved in the debates. Sharpe’s experience, while only illuminating a small part of the elephant that is the COP process, was found to provide a valuable, more nuanced and transparent perspective. In addition, and perhaps because of the media hype, many people forget the importance of all that happens outside "the room", beyond the summits, all year around. There are many UN agencies and many opportunities for young people’s voices to be heard.

The failure of past diplomatic endeavours

The premise of the discussion is the inadequacy of existing diplomatic processes. Aside from the Montreal Protocol, which successfully drove a global reduction in the use of ozone-depleting chemicals, international climate conferences have largely failed to produce effective commitments to tackle climate change. It was noted that the 2015 Paris Agreement resulting from COP21 was particularly lacking, despite Sharpe’s muted criticism. Indeed, the agreement allows each country to set its own emissions targets and provides no real incentives or penalties. Eight years later, global emissions are still rising, with little change from predicted "business as usual" emissions.

Going faster with a coalition of the willing

What alternative to the current diplomatic system does Simon Sharpe offer to go five times faster? The main thesis is a step back from attempting global, binding treaties which attempt to address the whole complex issue that is climate change. Instead, Sharpe suggests reducing the scope, time scale, and participants involved in a climate coalition. A reduced number of pioneering countries would focus on three well-defined sectors (the transition from coal to clean power, from oil to electric vehicles, and from deforestation to sustainable agriculture), with shorter term, better defined goals. The reading group described this as trying to go fast with a small group, rather than looking to go far with all players.

Is this theory of change persuasive?

Concerns were expressed about this approach being mainly suited to UK-like countries, leaving out less powerful countries which already suffer disproportionality from climate injustice. A possible counterpoint is that countries with less diplomatic baggage may be nimbler, and in fact more able to agree to rapid and effective climate action. Returning to the general strategy of starting with a small nucleus in the hopes of growing later, the question was asked of whether this theory of change is persuasive, and realistic. It was noted that reducing scope is often an effective strategy in a business, as it allows trust to be built, laying the groundwork before expanding. In addition, the three sectors outlined by Sharpe were thought likely to successfully cover most major challenges. Overall, it was agreed that while it was worthwhile continuing to strive to go far with global COP-like agreements, attempts to go fast through smaller coalitions were certainly worth trying.

Continuity, politics and accountability as major challenges

Some hurdles to establishing effective climate diplomacy came up in the discussion. The lack of continuity, with presidents of countries and international organisations changing every few years can limit the ability to make and keep long-term commitments – beyond one COP. The influence of lobbies, political interests and power games was also highlighted. Current diplomacy is often pre-occupied with de-risking climate agreements to make them palatable to senior politicians. Another consideration is that any small coalition will need to be fully accountable and transparent to prevent them from them veering away from what most benefits the global community. The legitimacy and utility of a small group making decisions on such a global challenge are dependent on the presence of frameworks for sharing information and ensuring transparency on their internal functioning. In a similar vein, formalising currently informal agreements may be key to endurance.

The translation from global agreements to local action

With the discussion being centred around international policy-making, the challenge of interfacing these high-level decisions with on-the-ground councils was acknowledged. While global decisions set a context for local policy and action, going five times faster will look very different on a global and a local scale. The importance of local projects, such as wetland restoration and tackling methane emissions from waste was emphasised. The transport question and upcoming contested congestion charge in Cambridge was brought up. It was noted that a systems view of the problem would bring solutions that do not require directly punishing car use, but instead nudging climate-positive behaviours in other ways.

The role of the University of Cambridge

What can Cambridge, and other academic institutions, contribute to speeding up climate change diplomacy? While universities currently focus mostly on how they as an industry can de-carbonise, a shared feeling was the potential for much wider-reaching contributions to climate action. First, the university may help to bridge the continuity gap, by being a champion for research, teaching and training, by advising policymakers and speaking truth to power. Second, universities are fertile grounds for challenging norms and beliefs and re-defining ideas. And third, Cambridge is well placed to have an influential convening role since it simultaneously has academic independence and touches on a variety of stakeholder groups (policymakers, industry, local communities). It was hoped that universities can tap into their potential, with Cambridge Zero as a great example of how universities can contribute to the climate space. Finally, it was emphasised that the university could focus more on its local impact.

In conclusion

The reading group expressed a strong appreciation of Sharpe’s profoundly optimistic and positive message, and for the emphasis on a collaborative partnership style of working. The suggestion to establish fast and effective diplomatic systems with fewer players was supported, while the importance of maintaining existing, if flawed, frameworks for global cooperation and multi-layered perspectives was emphasised. Let’s go far and fast.

Image by CHUTTERSNAP - Unsplash