Dispatch from Lima: Seven Trends We Spotted at UN Climate Talks

By Lauren Gifford and Jonas Bruun

Two veterans of UN climate talks cut through the jargon and tell us what’s new and trending at this year’s summit in Lima, Peru.

UN Climate Change Conference COP20 Inauguration

(Photo: cancilleriadeperu / Flickr)

The 20th annual UN Climate Change Conference (Conference of the Parties, or COP) took place in Lima, Peru in December 2014. It’s a dress rehearsal for talks that should conclude a new international climate agreement in 2015. But with several strands of negotiations between governments, as well as hundreds of events being held in parallel, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. So we’ve compiled a quick guide to some of the key trends shaping this year’s talks.

1. Zero emissions (but beware the small print)

Addressing climate change means rapidly weaning ourselves off the greenhouse gases that cause it. So what could be more welcome than a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050?

A “net zero” movement is now pushing for carbon neutrality within one generation. But there’s a catch: “net zero” means you can still emit a lot, as long as emissions are somehow sucked out of the atmosphere elsewhere. That provision is already being used to support expensive and unproven measures to capture and store carbon from fossil fuel power plants and industry, as well as controversial, climate-manipulating geo-engineering.

Striving for zero emissions is a step in the right direction, but we’ll need more than a catch phrase to motivate investments in renewables, grassroots empowerment, and straight-up significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Setting your own target

“Intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) is the latest acronym in the alphabet soup of jargon that is routinely generated by UN climate talks.

INDCs are a way for countries to declare what concrete actions they’ll be taking to address climate change, in the hope that these ingredients can be baked into a new international climate agreement. The guidelines on what INDCs can be are intentionally flexible and ambiguous, allowing states to declare anything from economy-wide emissions targets to long-term national climate action plans.

Predictably, negotiators are now struggling to articulate INDCs in a way that is fair, equitable, and transparent. A number of developing countries are concerned that INDCs are becoming a ruse for developed countries to ignore tricky questions about their fair share of climate action, based on their current and historic responsibility for causing the problem in the first place.

There’s also a concern that INDCs will just focus on “mitigation” (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) even though, for many countries, adaptation (coping with the climate change that’s already locked in), finance and technology transfers are vital to any new international climate deal.

3. Everyone’s talking about justice

Until recently, if someone said “climate justice” they’d more likely than not be referring to the fact that climate change was mostly caused by a handful of industrialized countries and big corporations, who should pollute less rather than pushing “solutions” with negative impacts on Indigenous Peoples, people of color and the world’s poor. But this year we’re seeing “justice-washing” throughout the COP.

Even Lord Nicholas Stern, a leading capitalist climate economist, has been speaking the language of climate justice. While we are happy to hear that fat cats now have to open their eyes and ears to “local ownership” and “gender sensitivity,” these words shouldn’t be tossed around the point of meaninglessness.

4. Time to clean up climate finance

“Climate finance” is money from developed countries that is meant to help developing countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions (via mitigation) and deal with climate impacts that are already happening or unavoidable (adaptation). To this end, developed countries have promised to mobilize $100 billion dollars a year by 2020.

The reality of the climate finance delivered to date is not all rosy. For example, Japan provided $1 billion in loans to build coal-fired power plants in Indonesia, then counted it as their contribution to a “fast start” climate finance package that ran from 2012-2012. There are plenty more examples of dirty deals masquerading as climate finance, but we can’t afford sparse climate finance wasted on polluting projects.

It’s time for the COP to clearly define what can count as climate finance, including following the demand of civil society groups to adopt an exclusion listthat prevents a new, $10 billion Green Climate Fund from funding fossil fuel projects.

5. Big oil everywhere

Last year’s UN climate change conference was awash with corporate sponsorship, which we warned could become “the new normal.” Twelve months on, big oil firms are everywhere. Shell and Chevron even co-hosted an event where the aforementioned Lord Stern spoke against divesting from fossil fuels (particularly oil and gas). Meanwhile, these same companies are lobbying hard to water down any potential climate deal.

What happened to climate change being “the biggest market failure the world has ever seen?” as Stern once wrote? We guess the oil companies never got the memo.

6. Forest conservation gets a makeover

The initiative to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) has been a hot topic at the climate talks for several years, but the means of financing forest protection remain unclear.

The initial REDD+ idea, pedaled by the World Bank, was to build a market for forest carbon offsets: big corporations could compensate for their own pollution by paying to preserve tropical forests. But REDD+ has increasingly negative connotations, as many of the initial schemes have been associated with displacing and disempowering indigenous and peasant communities and undermining their land rights.

In light of all the bad press, many forest projects are dropping the REDD+ branding and are simply being labeled “conservation projects” or “administrative agreements.” It remains to be seen whether or not these are any better at helping local people to preserve forests without compromising their livelihoods.

7. Gender, and arguing about its relevance

Developing “gender sensitive” policy is an increasingly important part of emerging climate finance schemes. But some governments object, including those of Sudan and Algeria. They want references to gender removed from the policies being negotiated in Lima. The European Union and Mexico, amongst others, insist that gender is a priority. The impasse continues.

Jonas Bruun and Lauren Gifford were part of the Institute for Policy Studies’ delegation at the UN climate talks in Lima, Peru.  Bruun is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Manchester’s Institute for Development Policy and Management, and Gifford is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder. This blog was originally published by the Institute for Policy Studies

Will ‘Rising Powers’ lower global labour and environmental standards?

By Khalid Nadvi

image by photoeverywhere.co.uk

A recent special issue in Oxford Development Studies explores how new players from the Rising Powers (mot notably China, Brazil and India) may challenge the global ‘rules of the game’ on social and environmental issues. In his introductory article on “Rising Powers” and Labour and Environmental Standards, Khalid Nadvi outlines what makes the Rising Powers special and in what ways they affect global labour and environmental standards.

Who are the Rising Powers?
First, who are the Rising Powers and why should we care about them? The Rising Powers include the emerging economies of Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa (often referred to as the BRICS) amongst others. They matter because of their expanding role as new drivers of growth in the world economy; their increasing significance not only as arenas for global production but also of consumption; their interdependent relationships with the rest of the world in terms of trade and capital flows and environmental impacts; their expanding clout in forums of geopolitical and global economic governance; and, their potential as ‘models’ of economic and social development for other developing and transition economies. Calling these countries “Rising Powers” is a matter of perspective and not unproblematic – after all some of them were historically key players in the world economy long before Western countries became rich and powerful. Nevertheless, over the past three decades, we are observing significant changes in the global economic and geopolitical power balance, with new (or re-emerging) players challenging the dominance of Western countries. In this context, there are six distinctive criteria that define a country as a Rising Power. These include:

  • strong economic growth since the 1990s
  • significant participation in global trade
  • a large domestic market
  • strong state involvement in the economy
  • availability of local private and public capital for investment
  • growing space for civil society in public-private discourse

These six factors make the Rising Powers different from other developing countries that have experienced strong economic growth and have caught up with more technologically advanced economies, such as South Korea. These characteristics also explain why Rising Powers may be able to change global governance dynamics around a variety of issues, including on labour and environmental standards.

How will the Rising Powers affect labour and environmental standards in the global economy?

image by wikimedia


Concerns about sweatshop labour, climate change and environmental pollution have prompted the adoption of labour and environmental standards in international trade over the past decades. This has been largely driven by governments, companies and civil society in Western countries. In contrast, some of the growth in Rising Powers like China occurred precisely because they started exporting cheap products, competing in the world market on low wages, and prioritising economic growth over social and environmental concerns. Does this mean that the Rising Powers will provoke a global ‘race to the bottom’ on labour and environmental standards? Or alternatively, as these countries become more prosperous, will domestic demands for better working conditions and environmental protection increase, and will this be reflected in a more active engagement by Rising Power states and firms in the global governance of labour and the environment?

The collection of articles in this special issue sheds light on different actors and processes within the Rising Powers that could potentially impact the global governance of labour and environmental standards. For instance, Guarín and Knorringa explore the influence of new middle class consumers on private standards, such as fair trade certification or environmental standards. Complementing this consumer-focused perspective, Brandi investigates how Chinese firms and government actors engage with international environmental standards on limiting carbon emissions. The articles by Coslovsky and by Peña on Brazil explore the enforcement of labour laws by the Brazilian government and the international engagement of Brazilian actors in private standard-setting networks on social and environmental issues, underlining the growing consensus around well enforced minimum norms in Brazilian society. In contrast, Mezzandri reminds us of the possible limits on improving social compliance through an in-depth study of Indian garment clusters.

image by Toa55/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Overall, the special issue highlights four areas that call for further research. First, consumers in the Rising Powers, particularly among the rapidly emerging new middle classes, may or may not attach importance to ethical aspects in their consumption decisions. Do these new consumers pay attention to ethically certified products? Second, Rising Power firms are increasingly taking on positions of lead firms in global value chains and global production networks. Will they come under similar pressure as many Western multinational companies to address social and environmental issues in their supply chains, and how will they respond to these? Third, civil society in the Rising Powers could potentially take on similar roles as Western NGOs running anti-sweatshop campaigns. Or will they address social and environmental issues very differently – or simply not be very important players at all? Finally, given the strong role of the state in the Rising Powers, governments are likely to be important players in setting rules on labour and the environment. How do these Rising Power states influence labour and environmental standards, both through national regulation and in global fora on social and environmental standards? These factors deserve further exploration in order to improve our understanding of how the Rising Powers influence the rules of the game on sustainability in international trade – and to find out whether Western concerns about a race to the bottom on labour and environmental standards are justified.

The special issue in Oxford Development Studies, Volume 42, Issue 2, 2014 aims to contribute to this debate. Links to individual articles can be found on the publisher’s website or on the Rising Powers and Interdependent Futures website.

This post was originally published at : http://risingpowersif.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/will-rising-powers-lower-global-labour.html on Thursday, 17 July 2014

What is the future of the green economy?

By Carl Death

As the 2015 Millennium Development Goals target date looms near and the successor to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change is due to be negotiated, Dr Carl Death, senior lecturer in International Political Economy, considers the increasing focus on the green economy and breaks the concept down into four key discourses that are competing to define its meaning. He argues that it is a big idea for dramatic change but it could also reinforce rather than challenge prevailing forms of inequality and injustice.

The politics of environment and development will be a recurring topic of international negotiations in 2014-2015. The target for the Millennium Development Goals will be reached in 2015 and they are likely to be replaced with a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The successor to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change is also due to be negotiated by 2015, although it won’t enter into force until 2020. For these reasons many are searching for guiding concepts and frameworks for the defining challenges of the coming century: how to achieve development in ways that is environmentally safe and sustainable and socially just. Sustainable development was the ‘big idea’ of the 1990s; the 2000s was the decade of climate change and the low carbon economy; and some have suggested that the ‘green economy’ will provide a structuring paradigm for the 2010s. At the ‘Rio+20’ Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012 the international community under the auspices of the United Nations promoted the green economy as one of its two main themes, and it was agreed that it was ‘one of the important tools available for achieving sustainable development’.

Much like sustainable development, the concept of the green economy is usefully vague, and is invoked by different people with different agendas and worldviews. For example, some see a ‘Global Green New Deal’ as the next stage of human progress, akin to the industrial revolution, in which societies will become ‘low carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive’. Others promote environmental markets and services as a new route to economic growth and higher consumption levels. Different countries have implemented green economy strategies in different ways. South Korea invested in a massive programme of ‘green’ jobs and hi-tech industries to ward off the financial crisis in 2009, comprising around 3% of GDP or $36.3 billion. South Africa has signalled an intention to cut greenhouse gas emissions, introduce a carbon tax, create ‘green jobs’ and stimulate local renewable energy industries. Yet contradictions abound in these declarations. South Africa, for example, emitted 9.2 tons of C02 emissions per capita in 2010, compared to 7.9 in the UK, and has some of the highest levels of resource consumption and social and economic inequality in the world.

In order to make sense of these diverse manifestations of the green economy, it is useful to break the concept down into four competing discourses: ‘green revolution’, ‘green transformation’, ‘green growth’, and ‘green resilience’. It is the competition between these discourses that will shape the future of the green economy over the next decade.

The oldest discourse of the ‘green economy’ is the sense in which many environmentalists in the 1960s and 1970s used it – a revolutionary transformation of economic (and hence social and political) relationships to bring them in line with natural limits to growth. This discourse has inspired a range of alternatives such as de-growth, steady-state economics, buen vivir, or prosperity without growth. These are not simply seen as necessary shifts, but rather as progressive opportunities for a better society. A ‘green economy’ is therefore something very different from our current economy, in terms of what we eat and how it is produced, the energy we use, our transport systems, and so on, and such a transition would revolutionise many aspects of contemporary society, including patriarchy, race-relations, the state and the state system, capitalism, and aspects of the Enlightenment philosophical tradition.

Green transformation, in contrast, envisages a shift in socio-economic and political systems towards social justice, equity and redistribution, but the basic elements and assumptions of modernity are to remain the same. Thus economic growth remains the driver of progress, the environment is a resource for human development, and states and the state-system are the regulators and guarantors of development. Typical policies include Keynesian strategies of public investments and fiscal stimulus, mobilised for ‘green’ ends: clean air and water and food, safe and efficient public transport, tree-planting campaigns, and so on. This is the basic idea of the ‘Green New Deal’ endorsed by the UN Environmental Programme.

The third discourse is that of green growth, where green markets are an economic opportunity. Given increasing prices of raw materials and natural resources – oil, gas, food stuffs, and land – as well as widely predicted shortages in resources like freshwater, there is money to be made in ‘going green’. Rising world populations and rapidly growing economies in Asia, Latin America and Africa also seem to present new markets, and even in older markets the niches for organic and green products are becoming increasingly commercially attractive. Carbon markets and pricing for ecosystem services create new opportunities for financial speculation, and ‘climate capitalism’ is presented as the next stage of human development. The metaphor of ‘rising tides lifting all boats’ seems profoundly apt here, but might prompt doubts about the ability of capitalist economies to weather coming climate storms in even the most sanguine free-market economists.

Finally, the fourth element of the discourse is essentially cautious. Warnings of environmental scarcity and peak oil have convinced many that alternatives need to be found in order simply to maintain the status quo. ‘Climate smart’ agriculture will be needed, and new forms of urban settlements. ‘Green resilience’ includes climate adaptation schemes, flood defences, insurance and risk indexing, disaster relief plans, and attempts to build self-sufficient local economies.

Widespread agreement on the importance of transitions to ‘a green economy’ therefore masks substantial political and economic differences. Various international negotiations – such as over the SDGs or the post-2015 climate treaty – as well as different countries and international organisations, are the sites of competing discourses. It is certainly possible that the latest ‘big idea’ of the green economy could transform our world in a manner akin to the European industrial revolution, but it could equally take forms which reinforce rather than challenge prevailing forms of inequality and injustice.

For more on ‘The Green Economy in South Africa: Global Discourses and Local Politics’ see http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02589346.2014.885668#.U4Gr7b5wZjo