Climate Change is a Common Problem: Why is No One Speaking a Common Language?

Nearly 150 of the world’s leaders kicked off the two-week negotiation process at COP21 in Paris, each allocated three minutes to summarise recent progress, intended pledges and hopes for reaching an international climate agreement. Appearances from heads of state typically come at the end of COP events; whether to spare them another potential embarrassment of admitting failure (as they had to do in Copenhagen in 2009), or to inject a sense of optimism and leadership from the start, reversing the schedule was a clever tactic by the organisers.

Whether it was political hot air or genuine commitment, the leader’s opening session looked positive. However, there was one key issue: everyone was speaking a different language. By “language” I don’t mean it in its most obvious definition—most of the speeches were given in English or French. I’m talking about the dialogue used to communicate each nation’s commitments. We’ve ended up with a mash-up portfolio of pledges lacking any thread of consistency; some are based on absolute reductions, some on carbon intensity, others on percentage reductions from Business-As-Usual (BAU). This was already apparent from the World Resource Institute’s collation of the 156 Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Not only is there no consistency in the type of INDC pledge, there is no standardisation in the baseline year, greenhouse gases and sectors covered, or target year.


Source: World Resource Institute CAIT Climate Data Explorer:

So while the audience nodded and applauded as each leader took to the stage, most probably had no idea whether each pledge was fair, ambitious or how it compared to any other nation. There is no way of contextualising this without digging for extra data, standardising each metric and crunching through the numbers. If this the case for scientists, policymakers, politicians who are already engaged in the negotiations, how can we expect these commitments to mean anything to the general public?

We need a common metric, not only as a means of comparing the level of ambition of each pledge, but as a way of effectively communicating them. If we believe in global fairness, distributive justice and equity then this should surely be measured on a per capita basis. Per capita targets would not only contextualise the current distributive gap between developed and developing nations, but would also act as an effective means of tracking how this gap narrows (i.e. converges) in the coming decades.

In terms of communication, per capita targets give individuals a tangible metric to assess their own impact and contribution. If I know my country’s 2030 per capita target, I can measure my own, see how far I have to go to meet it, and start to make personal lifestyle choices to help me get there. Individuals might finally feel like they have a role to play, and we could find we’re collectively more engaged in doing so. National contributions would be framed as a combination of the efforts of its citizens—each playing their part in reaching the pledged target. It’s an essential connection between the high-level negotiators and those who actually need to make it happen (i.e. all of us).

It’s now too late for per capita targets to feature in the Paris negotiations. If the agreement is passed, it will largely feature the INDCs in the form they were pledged. I hope, however, that following the negotiations, there is a way of re-framing these commitments into a form we can all understand. Climate change is a global problem; it’s time we started talking a global language. If we fail to do so I fear we face another round of hot air pledges because no nation could engage its citizens to join the effort.

Update from Day 3: today’s meetings featured a panel session on Climate Equity where per capita distribution or targets were not mentioned at all. Not once. I find this completely baffling. 


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