Herding elephants in Paris

December 10, 2015

The Paris ‘Conference of the Parties’ 21, the most important climate conference since the failed Copenhagen one of six years ago, is nearing an outcome. The dramatic 13 November events in the city has surely added grit to France’s determination to succeed, and has forged some unusual alliances. There is some hope that the spirit of togetherness – not just against terrorism but also to tackle that other global threat which the COP is about – will help in forging a transformative deal.

In Copenhagen, togetherness on climate was translated into the UN setting a global emissions reduction target and distributing it over its 200-odd members, with binding mechanisms to deliver them. That clearly turned out to be a bridge too far, striking a hard blow to the belief that the UN could in some selected areas start to resemble a global government.

For Paris, a lot will rest on the fate of the INDCs (intended nationally determined contributions) and their compliance mechanisms – essentially a bottom-up not top-down approach to the problem. Although I am a big believer in the need for stronger global governance, I think this has a far better chance of success.

But there are two big, stubborn, slow-moving ‘elephants in the room’ refusing to acknowledge that UN-level mandates have their limits and bottom-up action has an important role to play. They are, of course, aviation and shipping and the UN agencies supposed to deal with them – the ICAO and IMO.

They would be forgivable were it not for the fact that the elephants have consistently discouraged, and even thwarted, bottom-up action. ICAO has been, and still is, actively pushing for bilateral air service deals to outlaw – the horror! – kerosene taxation. More visibly, it has been trying to humiliate Europe for daring to take a regional measure: including aviation in its emissions trading system. MEPs attending the IMO’s latest environmental session were dismayed to be told that Europe’s decision to start monitoring – yes, just monitoring – ship emissions was utterly inappropriate and premature, simply because it was not done by the IMO but by the EU.

The elephants could also have been pardoned had they credible global solutions on offer. But that’s not the case – unless you believe that some sort of carbon offsetting system, the ‘best’ prospect ICAO has on offer, cuts it for aviation. In case you did not know, Europe has decided to do away with offsets as a compliance tool, for the simple reason that they have failed. The IMO has stalled all talk of a market-based measure.

The best excuse both sectors can come up with is that ‘a global industry requires a global solution’.

While no-one in the NGO community disputes that effective global action would be ideal, in its absence regional action is perfectly possible without having all sorts of distorting effects on the industry – witness Europe’s aviation ETS. Europe should feel proud not humiliated; the ETS is the only reason ICAO feels it needs to be seen to be doing something.

So what’s in store for the elephants in Paris? We fight – in true Copenhagen style – for one UN agency, UNFCCC, to put tough obligations on two others, IMO and ICAO. But they are resisting, as you would expect stubborn elephants to do.

And if it turns out that the two elephants can still roam freely around as they currently can, the least IMO and ICAO should do is acknowledge they are not the only ones entitled to solve the problem, and that indeed regional action has a role to play. Is that a modest ask? Sure it is. But better we learn Copenhagen’s lesson six years too late than never.

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