A version of this article originally appeared on Real Climate Economics.
In 2009, I published a book with Graciela Chichilnisky, Saving Kyoto, that argued passionately for preserving the economic and political architecture of the only international treaty on climate change the world has known — the Kyoto Protocol. The book was timely: The countdown to compliance with Kyoto’s mandated emissions targets had begun; the international community was gathering that year in Copenhagen to negotiate the next round of climate commitments; and there was hope that the Obama administration could usher the U.S. back to the negotiating table in earnest.
More importantly from my perspective, however, was the growing realization that the window of opportunity for stabilizing the earth’s climate system was rapidly coming to a close. The urgency of the crisis demanded immediate, extensive emissions reductions. And I firmly believed that a coordinated international effort that mandated reductions from the world’s largest emitters was the fairest and most efficient way to stave off climate disaster.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the famous Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the international governance framework that eventually gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol. As the global community convenes again this week in Rio to establish goals and strategies for sustainable development for the next 20 years, its failures to arrest climate change over the last 20 years will be hard to deny. But it will also be hard to ignore the real energy, innovation, and progress around climate change that is emerging from the ground up all over the world. The examples are many, including Germany’s aggressive use of feed-in tariffs that is helping to drive down the costs of solar technology worldwide; the commitments of cities across the globe to redesigning their infrastructure, planning, and policies to dramatically slash emissions; and the emergence of regional emissions reduction schemes, such as California’s AB32 and the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Even private industry is taking positive leaps forward toward embracing energy savings and preparing for future uncertainties around climate change and global energy prices.
As someone who supports a global approach to climate change, I have had to reconcile the failures of the international framework with progress at regional and local scales. I am an economist by training, so my orientation to climate action is first and foremost as a global public good. Viewed through this lens, individual actions to mitigate climate change — whether at a national, regional, or local scale — are inefficient at best, ineffective at worst. If one country’s efforts can benefit all other countries without exclusion (the defining characteristic of a global public good), only credible, coordinated action between countries should incentivize an individual country to act. In the case of climate change, there is even more rationale for tackling the problem from the top down: No single country’s mitigation effort can be sufficient to slow global warming. Acting alone, each country is powerless to prevent climate disaster.
For these reasons and more, a binding international treaty on climate change seems to make sense. Acting as part of a coordinated global effort, each country can be sure that the costs it incurs to lower emissions will be justified by the reduction in global climate change risk. A global approach also facilitates a more just burden sharing between nations. Individual country commitments in the Kyoto Protocol, for example, institutionalized a notion of climate justice agreed to by the parties to the UNFCC. That equity commitment shifted the burden of emissions reduction onto those countries most responsible for global warming and best able to pay for mitigation, and excluded developing countries from mandatory reductions.
As the last two decades have demonstrated, however, a global approach to climate change may work better in theory than in practice. We may have been too optimistic reaching for a global solution in 1992, without having laid enough of the groundwork at home. There is no doubt that the picture of our climate future today would look very different had the U.S. remained a committed participant to the UNFCC process and taken the lead on reducing emissions and developing clean energy technologies. But the level of popular understanding and engagement with climate change and its impacts was not sufficient to sustain the necessary commitments.
To mobilize broad-based support for climate action, the moral and economic imperative of climate action needs to become more widely understood. A clearly articulated vision for an alternative energy economy has to be presented, alongside a feasible, delineated path that can lead us there. I interpret the groundswell of activity on the ground in the U.S. and elsewhere as progress along both of these fronts. The solution to climate change may ultimately be global, but national, regional, and local scale efforts will have to carry us part of the way there. Climate change is global; climate change impacts and adaptation are local. Why wouldn’t we look to locally appropriate technologies and solutions to inform a global response?
At the international scale, the benefits to emissions reduction have been described almost entirely in terms of reduced global warming potential. But there are non-climate related benefits from reduced dependence on fossil fuels that seem more tangible in the here and now. Though individual efforts at the local, regional, or national scale may not halt global warming, they can deliver real energy savings, improve health outcomes, increase efficiency and profitability, and reduce vulnerability to volatility in fossil fuel supplies. More localized campaigns to shutter coal plants, prevent hydraulic fracturing (fracking), create walkable communities, solarize public buildings, and retrofit homes and businesses for greater energy efficiency can create these ancillary benefits, while contributing to global emissions reduction.
Climate action from the ground up can also engender conversations within communities about the type of future that is desirable. A community that rallies to prevent fracking, for example, will have to grapple with creating alternative employment opportunities and securing community sovereignty, economic power, and political voice. These discussions can help forge bridges between climate action and other movements to eliminate gross inequalities, cultivate resilience, and create a more reliable prosperity. The connectivity of these movements may eventually secure a greater win for social justice than Kyoto’s complicated burden sharing scheme.
Supporting climate action from the bottom up does not mean abandoning all hope for a global solution. Successes at multiple scales increase the likelihood that a robust global solution will be forged. Every coal plant taken offline, every new pipeline halted, and every new regulation enacted reduces the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry over the electorate. Every new dollar saved through energy efficiency, every new kilowatt generated by wind power, and every new person employed installing solar panels demonstrates the real potential of a green energy future and closes the gap between aspiration and reality.