No one said stopping and reversing climate change, the mother of all tragedies of the commons, was going to be easy. There are precious few examples in which humanity has managed to come together in its own enlightened self-interest or “enlightened sovereignty” as Prime Minister Stephen Harper has put it, to collectively change course on such a major governance issue. Even so, unless you believe in rolling the dice on your future and your children’s future, and doing so with considerably worse than even odds, you are right to be deeply worried at the lack of progress in global negotiations at "Nopenhagen."

You should not take any solace from “climategate.” Despite the alleged transgressions of some scientists associated with the issue, the consensus about the science itself is that it is very sound.   There is growing agreement that the world needs to avoid a temperature increase of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial age levels in order to avoid “dangerous interference with the climate system.”  We might be looking at 1.3 degrees Celsius already.

The United Nations (UN), with its 192 members, is too big and unwieldy, and too sensitive to conflicting interests and ideologies, to reconcile the regional differences on its own.  The five countries that came together to cut the basic deal in Denmark — Brazil, China, India, South Africa and the US — are too narrow a group to attract the requisite followers. The European Union, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and, not least, Canada, are too important to an equitable and sustainable solution to be left on the sidelines.

It is not at all clear how the Copenhagen Accord and the Kyoto Protocol can be married into an effective negotiating process, one that can make real progress in a meaningful timeframe. The Copenhagen deal lacked binding targets and timetables for the nations that signed on. The commitments on targets and timetables inspired by the deal are uncoordinated in terms of approach, baselines or units of measurement. There are no commitments on monitoring or verification.

Some Progress has Been Made

Copenhagen’s promises of finance for mitigation and adaptation are a little too vague and back-end loaded to be taken at face value; however, the Copenhagen glass was not empty. Some very helpful progress was made in that more than 70 countries, of which 35 were developing countries, including China, India and Brazil, pledged to take "nationally appropriate actions." Furthermore, sub-national actors ranging from cities to states and provinces to trans-regional groups, including the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the Western Climate Initiative in North America, not waiting on senior government decision making, are entering the climate arena and waging social redesign campaigns aimed at significantly reducing carbon footprints,

These disparate actions ultimately need to be brought together. If the world is not to become a crazy quilt of regulation and trade protectionism masquerading as climate sensitivity, and if the “deal” is to be legitimate in the eyes of the rest of the world, it will have to be brought into the legitimizing processes of the UN. But first, the deal has to be created: how to marry the top-down and bottom-up processes and get to “yes”?

The G20 — The Best Group to Deal with the Climate Change Crisis?

What is required is a group big enough to include all the nations whose cooperation is indispensable, but is still small enough to facilitate reaching agreement — that is, a group effective on substance and efficient in negotiation. There are two alternatives which happily can add up to one solution: the Major Economies/Emitters Forum (MEF) and the G20. The MEF has the requisite vocation — reducing emissions — and the G20 has the requisite focus: economics and finance. The G20 is, by its own declaration, the world’s premier economic forum. Thanks to Lord Nicholas Stern of Britain, a compelling case has been made about the drastic economic consequences of failing to deal with climate change in good time.

The Leaders’ G20 was created to deal with the recent economic crisis stemming from sub-prime loans and totally inadequate regulation of financial institutions. The next economic crisis might well be driven by an inadequate response to climate change. If that is to be avoided, the elements of a climate change deal will need to include financing, energy policy, research, technology transfer, adaptation, perhaps global public health, surveillance and monitoring.

It is true that the G20 has especially critical economic functions to play right now. It needs to stick to its knitting and deal with the fallout from the financial crisis. Both the Canadian and Korean hosts of the two 2010 G20 summits are on record as wishing not to overburden the agenda by the additional and very controversial climate change task. Nevertheless, the G20 can commission work, inviting various groups and organizations to prepare proposals for future G20 meetings. The G20 can catalyze the necessary preparations without compromising its short-term effectiveness. In any case, climate change operates on its own timetable and does not respect leaders’ timetables or preferences.

A second objection, voiced in Copenhagen, asks how well the large and rapidly growing G20 developing countries are positioned to speak for the rest of the developing world, where conditions are very different. The response is that they are better positioned to do that than the G8, which is the alternative.

The G20 and the MEF are not the G8, a group from the developed West and North. Both comprise the main emerging dynamos of the world economy, and all of the regions as well.

A further, not-trivial factor is the simple fact that there are too many summits. For heads of government there is no commodity more precious than their tim, and they cannot afford to meet several times to discuss several issues under several rubrics. Nor do they need to do so. For both substantive and procedural reasons, we would propose that to address the climate change deadlock, the MEF morph into the G20. After all, all the MEF countries are already in the G20, so it shouldn’t be difficult.  We have seen from the “Great Recession” that the G20 can deal successfully with global-scale problems. We need it now to focus its efforts on the quintessential global governance issue — climate change — that could doom us all if we can’t find the means to agree to change course. Just like a mind, an effective global forum is a terrible thing to waste.

Paul Heinbecker and Gordon Smith are distinguished fellows at The Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

  • A former Canadian deputy foreign minister, NATO ambassador and G7/G8 Sherpa, Gordon Smith is a leading expert on the evolution of the G20 and global summitry.

  • With a distinguished career in Canadian diplomacy — including posts as ambassador to Germany, permanent representative to the United Nations (UN) and adviser to various prime ministers, Paul Heinbecker is one of Canada’s most experienced commentators on foreign policy and international governance. Paul is also the director of the Centre for Global Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University.