If you read the mainstream press, environmental blogs or my own favorite trailing indicator – the rolling Facebook wall of the politico-commercial climate elite – the pleasant surprise of finding agreement at the Cancun COP re-affirms both the relevance and utility of the UN climate negotiating process. The success is generally attributed to the negotiating skill of the Mexican hosts, an out of the blue clever intervention from India, a partial redefinition of the word “consensus” and the stylistic leadership differences of the Figueres UNFCCC Secretariat. And make no mistake, it is a success. Huzzahs, hoorays and yippees are indeed in order, because a year ago in Copenhagen, the outlook for going forward in any form was indeed bleak.
However, you actually scratch the surface and try to divine what Cancun means – or what impact it will have – the conversation gets fuzzier quickly. The state of the UN climate dialogue had descended to such a state that anything short of abject collapse is now seen as triumph. Considering the result through a different lens, the “success” required every diplomatic tool in our arsenal – coupled with a collective willingness to sigh, squint and accept a seriously bland and anodyne agreement. Drop either of those by a fraction, and Cancun and Copenhagen share more than a common first vowel.
Since the Bali Action Plan three years ago, the diplomatic and associated participants that make up the UNFCCC process have collectively flown tens of millions of miles and spent tens of thousands of man-years in dialogue, debate and engagement. Yet the best result we can imagine today is not dissimilar to pulling the Monopoly card “Roll Again”. To those who think the climate change clock is about five minutes before midnight, this is both depressing and terrifying.
Both opinions are correct. It is indeed a triumph and everybody involved should have a small smile of satisfaction. Failure would have been horrific – and creating as many commonalities as possible for the world’s nations to agree on cannot be a bad thing. But on a macro basis, it also highlights the frustrations of relying strictly on the UN process – at least in its current construct – to manage the climate issue. Little in the COP process gives one hope that it can remotely operate on the timeline that mainstream science urgently demands.
While the political side of COP seems a coin flip between disaster and modest incrementalism, a more positive change can be noted – but outside the negotiating walls. Throughout the 11 COPs I’ve attended, the sidelines have always been a buzzing dialogue amongst academics, NGOs and trade associations others. But now, they are joined by serious corporate presence -not just in the form of policy trackers, but from C-suite level presence (Coca-Cola, Dow, Duke Energy, Siemens , Virgin Group, Deutsche Bank, among others) and glitzy corporate bragfests about carbon accomplishments, commitments and challenges. The Gigaton Awards were launched – in just one category, you had Toyota, Nike, Panasonic, Walt Disney and Sony strutting their bona fides. A company less known to the general public – Hara – announced an energy efficiency deal with the UAE worth several billion dollars. And this barely scratches the surface of the hundreds of companies who either showed up themselves or signed on to urgent appeals to get the process moving so they could really start out innovating and out investing each other in making the low carbon world.
So, here’s what I’d like to see – I’d like the see the UN process embrace that dynamic and make it their own. Instead of only herding cats to the lowest common denominator, I’d like to see the UNFCCC also take on the role of global cheerleader – and maybe even matchmaker. Make the COP not just about the political dialogue, but about openly celebrating the low carbon innovation that is emerging in front of our eyes – in policies, technologies, projects, initiatives. As an eminent friend of mine put it last week, have it be the world’s biggest Show and Tell. There should be a constant stream of awards throughout the two weeks – best agricultural policy in an LDC, best VC cleantech investment, most innovative climate bond financing, Asian climate NGO of the year, Latin American carbon entrepreneur of the year and probably a hundred others. Because that is the scale of both the problem and the solution. Climate Company of the Year and Climate Country of the Year would have to bracket the proceedings, one way or the other.
Like it or not, we are a competitive species and if staring into the maw of planetary disaster can’t get us to collaborate faster, maybe having us compete toward the top is an idea we should embrace. Any fan of Freakonomics can tell you that human beings are completely irrational (on a cost-benefit basis) when it comes to prizes and incentives. Let’s add an arrow to our holster and give the press and the public a platform for the success stories as well. Because there is nowhere better than a COP to get out the word. And no better place to market your wares to a germane and interested audience.
On a broader basis, the UNFCCC’s day to day relevance must move towards an ability to help countries and companies find paths to low carbon prosperity. Bracketed texts and caffeine fueled all nighters are increasingly isolated from the carbon innovation economy. If a government, company or advocacy organization wants to know what kinds of tools – technology, implementation, policy, finance – have worked in what kinds of situations, the UNFCCC should be the first port of call. If you’ve ever tried to navigate its website, I think you’ll agree that is not the current situation.
I can lie on my back blindfolded under a basketball hoop and -while keeping my hands at my side and using only my feet – probably eventually make a shot. That’s not indicative of a predictable process, but rather – as my mother used to say – evidence even a blind pig finds an acorn every now and then. There are just too many inherent handicaps in the 200 country UN process to count on it exclusively, despite the heroic efforts of so many who serve honorably within its confines. Keep it going – for sure – but open other fronts that play to different parts of our species unique psyche as well.