We can learn something about democracy from the UN climate negotiations

The UN climate negotiations work by consensus. In the negotiating sessions, diplomats review the text of proposed policies in excruciating detail. It is normal to spend an hour discussing the suitability of the word “encourage” vs. “ask” in a particular sentence.

The negotiations, though painful at times to watch, are very civil. They have to be: the end goal is an agreement with which every party is comfortable. Vitriol rarely paves a path to consensus.

Contrast this with the current state of politics and governance in countries like the U.S. and Canada. Decisions are often reached by majority-rule. If one party captures 50% plus one of the vote – or of the electoral college – that party can make decisions with little concern for the minority position. In a multi-party parliamentary system like Canada’s, 40% of the vote is often sufficient to win a majority and make 100% of the decisions.

Governments in majority-rule systems can carefully consider and respect the views of minority parties. However, there is often little incentive today to do so. That means there’s also little incentive for the opposition to be reasonable. If the only way to significantly influence policy is to defeat or embarrass the government, then you may as well oppose or obstruct any policy the governing party proposes just in order to get a “win” in the eye of your supporters. The outcome is childish political theatre and name-calling.

Governing by consensus certainly has limitations. It allows an unreasonable minority to block progress. It leads to conservative decisions which are insufficient to address challenging long-term issues or the concerns of rightfully aggrieved minorities. This is a key criticism of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): the requirement to reach consensus leads to arguably insufficient attention to lower probability but higher risk impacts of climate change.

Still, imagine how different the reaction to Trump’s electoral college win would be in a rule by consensus system. There would be some comfort in the knowledge that minority voices will be considered in all decisions, rather than the panic that the party which eked out a narrow victory can completely undo policies supported by the opposition (and, in many cases, the majority of the population!). The process itself would also be far more respectful.

The UN climate negotiations may be too slow and too ineffective. Yet unlike the political process in North America, you would not be ashamed to let your children watch.

Six random observations from the UN climate negotiations

1. Trump-ing Trump. After more than a week here at the negotiations, I can say with confidence that, yes, the President-elect may loathe the Paris Climate Agreement but not nearly as much as the people who negotiated the Paris Climate Agreement loathe the President-elect.

2. Find it difficult to work the day after the U.S. election? Feel for the Islamic American climate activist who had to speak at the interfaith climate dialogue a few hours after the election results became official.

3. Transparency efforts can be opaque. A key focus of the negotiations is developing a transparent reporting framework for parties to the Paris Climate Agreement. Between the constant evolving schedule, the last minute closing of previously open sessions to observers, and the UNFCCC website’s Byzantine document filing system, progress on the transparency framework has been anything but transparent. The UNFCCC needs my wife, a professional organizer, a heck of a lot more than it needs me.

4. Caffeine as an alternative fuel. All conference, there has been a steady stream of delegates from around the world feigning interest in the United Arab Emirates displays in order to grab a precious free cup of coffee or tea.

5. Here comes the sun. That same United Arab Emirates has a diorama of a massive 5GW solar farm in the works – including rows of PV cells, concentrated solar plants, a battery system, and new transmission lines – sufficient to provide about a quarter of Dubai’s electricity. It is just one of the many incredible solar projects on display here. The host country of Morocco itself committed to getting more than half its power from solar and other renewables by 2030.

6. Oh, the modalities. I appreciate the importance of developing clear communication procedures and of proper legal language, but good lord, if I hear the word modalities again, I might strangle someone.

Trump’s climate change denial a test for the world: Dispatch from COP22

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Entrance to main plenary tent

The venue for COP22 here in Marrakech is a mini village assembled just outside of the old city walls. The buildings holding the negotiations and side events are all temporary. Like an old Saharan caravan, the entire complex of tents and temporary shelters can be dismantled when the event is complete. With the surprise victory of Donald Trump, people across the world are worried that the agreements being made inside those buildings may also be dismantled.

The Trump victory and Republican sweep of the Senate and Congress is clearly bad news for the climate. As we’ve all heard by now, the incoming administration may cancel programs aimed at reducing emissions, helping Americans adapt to climate change, and supporting the developing world. It may withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, at least in spirit. Doing so may give a number of other countries from Saudi Arabia to India to yes, even Canada, an excuse to delay climate action.

I don’t know what will happen. No one here in Marrakech does. Take every story you hear about the “behind-the-scenes” talks with respect to Trump at COP22 with a heaping mound of Moroccan desert salt. We’re all guessing until he takes office.

I can only add this: Maybe the world’s governments need this test.

For years, international climate policy has been steered by the immense gravitational pull of U.S. politics. The waxing and waning of U.S. government willingness to address climate change effectively controlled the position of almost every country on the planet outside of Western Europe.

This outsized role of the U.S. was also never going to be sustainable in the long-term. Certainly U.S. leadership was critical at the beginning of this process and in creating the Paris Climate Agreement. Eventually leadership was going to have to come from other nations. The U.S. share of the global economy and of global greenhouse gas emissions has been declining. Its influence on the path of international climate policy was eventually going to follow.

The child just may be grown enough to walk on its own. These are not the Bush years. The Paris Climate Agreement is not the fractured Kyoto Protocol. The Paris Climate Agreement has come into force with the willing participation of developed and developing nations, including rapidly industrializing nations like China, once a real and rhetorical obstacle to progress. The agreement was designed to be somewhat Congress-proof. Now there is a real push here to make the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement – the work of this conference – Trump-proof.

Keep in mind much of the progress internationally in the past few years is not a result of U.S. leadership. China’s promises in the bilateral deal with the U.S., the deal that paved the way for Paris, did not result from the U.S. extracting concessions. China pledged what it intended to pledge, thanks to internal decisions about addressing climate change, air pollution, and energy needs (not necessarily in that order!). That’s not going to change.

It is possible that Trump’s approach to the UN climate process will end up demonstrating that the world is ready to forge ahead in addressing climate change with or without the U.S. Ironically, it could actually confirm the concerns of many of Trump’s supporters that Americans are ‘losing’ to the rest of the world.

Five myths about Canada’s carbon pricing plan

On Monday, the federal government announced plans for a price on carbon, beginning at $10 per tonne in 2018 and rising to $50 per tonne in 2022. Since the announcement, there have been all manner of claims about what it will mean for the provinces and for average Canadians. Here are some of the common myths – and the reality:

Myth 1: The announcement was shocking to the provinces.

Reality: Unless the provincial leaders have been in a cave for the past year, the announcement of a federal minimum carbon price should come as no surprise at all. Justin Trudeau and his team said throughout the election campaign that, if elected, one of their first actions would be to put a federal price on carbon. It was repeated after the election. It was a key discussion point in all federal-provincial meetings. It was stated in the Vancouver Accord on Clean Growth and Climate Change. It was signaled throughout the summer. And with a vote on ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement coming any day, it was pretty obvious the pricing announcement was imminent.

Myth 2: The decision was a unilateral move by the Trudeau government.

Reality: Not exactly. The provinces are being offered a framework that has been discussed for almost a year: there will be a minimum price set federally, but the provinces can do whatever they want, so long as their carbon pricing system at least meets the federal minimum. Yes, the minimum is unilateral, but otherwise, this is about as flexible as a federal “tax” could possibly be.

Myth 3: This is a federal government tax grab.

Reality: Flat out false. The proceeds from federal carbon tax – a tax only imposed if a province decides against creating its own pricing system – would be returned to the provinces.

Myth 4: The carbon price is not revenue-neutral / The carbon price will increase tax bills for Canadians.

Reality: Not necessarily. First, the provinces can choose their own carbon pricing system. So it can be revenue neutral, as in the case of British Columbia’s carbon tax. Second, even if a province refuses to implement its own pricing system, and is thus required to pay the federally required minimum tax, the proceeds come back to the province. The province could therefore choose to return it to the citizens.

Myth 5: The carbon price will cripple the resource industry.

Reality: Not really. Only companies that have been paying zero attention to science, Canadian politics, global trends, etc. over the past 20 years will be unprepared. A 2013 study of ten energy companies operating in Canada showed that seven of the ten had adopted a “shadow” carbon price for making decisions, and the other three had informally examined carbon pricing. The “shadow” prices ranged from $15 to $68 per tonne, right in the range proposed by the federal government. In other words, the companies have been preparing for a price on carbon for years. For resource and energy companies, having a system finally in place is much preferable to years of policy uncertainty.

To be clear, I’m not defending the structure of the system. The price is far too low, on its own, to bring Canada close to its target of a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by the year 2030, let alone for Canada to play its part in avoiding the global temperature limits agreed to in Paris. But we have to start somewhere. You have to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run.

The pricing plan may be a crawl. At least we are finally out of the crib.