Strategies for achieving serious international cooperation on climate change

10 March 2019


Banner image by Hpgruesen by CC0 Creative Commons

Strategies for Achieving Serious International Cooperation on Climate Change

Reported by Jamie Ward, NERC Policy Intern, Centre for Science and Policy (January – April 2019)

In the final seminar of the series, David Victor, Professor of International Relations and Co-director, Laboratory on International Law and Regulation, UC San Diego, discusses the current state of international cooperation on climate change and how to make it more effective.

Due to the perceived negative impact on acting on climate change, global cooperation is required to introduce deep changes that will reduce emissions and mitigate the potential impacts of climate change. David Victor analyses the current framework for cooperation, international agreements on climate action, how effective it has been and how it can be improved.

To listen to the talk, please click on the link below:

David begins by explaining that the climate change issue is ultimately driven by pollutants emitted by individual countries and mixed globally. In order to deal with the problem, emissions will need to be reduced dramatically. These emissions are a byproduct of economic activities and production of goods that are traded globally. In this market, emission control is not free, therefore negatively affects international economic competitiveness. This deters countries from reducing emissions independently, and so it is thought international cooperation will be required if emissions are to be reduced by 80%-100%.

Before discussing how to create effective international cooperation, David outlines the impact international cooperation has had so far, using recent research and emission data. Emission trends pre and post 2010 have shown an increase in emissions since 2010 despite the agreements made at the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference and the Paris agreement in 2015. When analysing the emission trajectories of all OECD countries, compared to the pledges made in the Paris agreement, it is clear none of those countries are on track. Despite this, projected scenarios do show reduced warming if all nations keep their pledges and the agreement affects the ambition of inter-country pledges, however, there is no evidence the Paris agreement has affected global emission trends as of yet.

So, what can be done to make international cooperation on climate change more effective? David explains the need to change the underlying incentives to make progress on climate change and what effect this could have on the rate of progress. He outlines three ways this could be done.

The first suggests countries should work in smaller groups to make a deal on emissions rather than a global cooperation effort, which typically leads to negotiation gridlock or an unambitious agreement. With approximately 8-10 countries of 195 responsible for about 70% of emissions, a group made up of these countries agreeing to reduce emissions in exchange for some benefit between them could be extremely effective, without the need to satisfy all 193 UN countries. The second improvement suggests using non-climate related impacts of pollutants to motivate an agreement that will be reinforced by countries’ self-interest. David uses the example of soot, a pollutant which damages both public health and the climate. As only two countries are responsible for the majority of soot emissions, an agreement between would be mutually beneficial as well as reduce emissions. The last point David makes relates to leadership actions and creating followership through those actions. He uses the example of reducing emissions to zero in an institute that burns a lot of fossil gas. Clear and visible actions such as reducing gas burning and increasing the use of renewable energy will get more followership and support, which can lead to more action, than switching from fossil gas to biomethane and burning the same amount of gas.

Despite these improvements, David warns of several implications of international cooperation on climate action. Firstly, he repeatedly states that transformation is going to be slow. In relation to the climate challenge where the rise in temperature is faster than we expected (1.5°C could be reached by 2025), this will mean that we are going to under-mitigate and over-adapt. The next is a warning about not getting distracted by controversial or extravagant ideas that do not majorly impact the problem when looking at the bigger picture. The last point is one about social science and the need for scientists to better communicate the uncertainties and unknowns. David explains the large uncertainties involved with the findings of the social and political sciences but reiterates their increasing importance in generating the transformation required, a point highlighted throughout the series.

Questions from the audience focused on the challenges with convening smaller groups of countries for climate deals. The main points discussed included: Forming groups that are sector specific and focussing more on actions rather than commitments; motivating countries by targeting areas that are the most vulnerable to climate change; and the importance of the political system in the countries forming the groups.

With the end of the Christ’s Climate Lecture Series, it is clear political and social science needs to be more heavily considered in the climate discussion, typically dominated by the technical challenges. These talks highlighted the importance of public perception and political challenges in constraining the most important practices to generate engagement and motivate action from the public, create effective policy action and facilitate worthwhile international cooperation.