Why is the G20 fiddling while the Earth burns? Last month, atmospheric CO2 (carbon dioxide) concentration exceeded 396 parts per million (ppm), rising at an accelerating rate from 370 ppm in 2000. The consensus view of scientists is that we do not have the luxury of decades to stabilize CO2 and other greenhouse gases. In fact, we are almost certain to exceed the internationally agreed target of 450 ppm by 2050, which provides only a 50 percent chance of limiting the global temperature increase to two degrees Celsius.

UN climate change negotiations are at a dead end, despite all the efforts to characterize them as moving forward. The negotiations are focused on two dimensions that are doomed to fail — binding national emission targets and financial transfers. Determining binding national targets — the allocation of future emission rights among countries — is plagued by disagreement on the implications of historical responsibility, and the insistence of developed countries that developing countries make binding commitments. Remember, the Byrd-Hagel Senate resolution, which passed 95 to 0, specified the United States should not be a signatory to any agreement unless it “also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance period.”

Prospects for green climate funding are no more realistic. In 2009 at Copenhagen, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to wave a magic wand, announcing “$100 billion a year by 2020 to address the climate change needs of developing countries…funding will come from a wide variety of sources, public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources of finance.” This annual $100 billion is supposed to be “new and additional,” in the minds of developing countries, above the 0.7 percent gross national income commitment for official development assistance. The fact is this “commitment” is simple fantasy.

The G20 Los Cabos meeting has been characterized as “a pointless event that’s too big to ignore. Like all its predecessors, it will propose hopelessly unworkable solutions to intractable problems.” In fact, it was disappointing. The “G20 Leaders Declaration” made desultory references to climate change: “We reiterate our commitment to fight climate change and welcome the outcome of the 17th Conference of the Parties to the UN climate change conferences…and will work with Qatar as the incoming Presidency towards achieving a successful and balanced outcome at COP-18.”

Punting the issue to the Rio+20 Earth Summit will not help. Mikhail Gorbachev, speaking for the Climate Change Task Force, said: “the draft final document of the Rio+20 conference does not give proper attention to climate change…it looks like there is backsliding on this issue.” The Climate Action Network gave Brazil — host of the Earth Summit — the “Fossil of the Day” award, for “using its growing political clout and indisputable diplomatic capacities only to find clever compromises and get agreement on a watered-down document devoid of clear commitments.”

So, why are Brazil, Mexico (host at Los Cabos) and the major powers in the G20 treating the climate change issue like a game of chicken? It is perfectly clear that it is much cheaper to act now, rather than in the future. We can pay now — or pay much more later. The Los Cabos summit punted the issue, asking for future progress reports on the Green Climate Fund (where failure is inevitable), green growth and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.   

What can the Mexican presidency and the G20 do? They can ignore the quixotic quest for an ambitious global top-down treaty and initiate a series of actions that would contribute to substantial progress. The key is to start by creating a series of new international institutional entities, each responsible for delivering a significant part of the ultimate solution. Each action is a no brainer — required even if there was a global agreement on targets and funding. The G20 could establish new institutions to:

  • fund “no regrets” investments;
  • establish new stringent standards for future heavy industry and power plants;
  • build a global liquefied natural gas market, enhancing global security of supply arrangements;
  • create a global research and development consortium; and
  • monitor global emissions.

To maximize support and chances for success, new entities must avoid the traditional portfolio silos of existing international organizations. The best existing examples are the Codex Alimentarius (the organization responsible for food standards) and UNAIDS (the joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS). Codex is an organization with two parents — the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) knock heads together to resolve jurisdictional disputes and portfolio jealousies. The directors general of the FAO and WHO are jointly responsible to ensure that the global interest is served, accommodating the priorities of both the agricultural industry and consumers. An alternative would be to create entities like UNAIDs, which has a program coordinating board with broad membership representing other organizations. 

Imagine a new entity — with the World Bank and regional development banks as parents with joint custody — to fund investments in “no regrets” opportunities, where before the lack of liquidity prevented exploiting investments with high positive present values. Imagine if the G20 set up a “Consultative Group for International Energy Research” along the lines of agriculture’s CGIAR, but with the “parents” being the International Energy Agency and the UN Development Programme. Imagine if the UN Environment Programme and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development were to be given joint custody and responsibility for monitoring. Each of these new organizations would become potent constituencies and lobbyists for an important piece of the puzzle.

In addition, Mexico could work behind the scenes to support Christine Lagarde’s idea that the International Monetary Fund offer research and analytical support to member countries to help eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and put a price on carbon. A systematic program would help give politicians the cover needed to simultaneously advance the climate change file and repair their fiscal positions.

It is understandable that Los Cabos was consumed with the euro crisis and the Greek tragedy, but one hopes that the Mexicans use the rest of their presidency to pursue the art of the possible, putting in place the building blocks for serious action on climate change.

Why are Brazil, Mexico (host at Los Cabos) and the major powers in the G20 treating the climate change issue like a game of chicken?