More than 190 countries convene in Paris on Monday for the start of the landmark United Nations Summit to agree on a new global climate change treaty. The conference tops off a series of meetings in 2015 in what has been called a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a new international framework to address the challenges of global warming and sustainable development more broadly.
For Paris follows not only the UN summit in New York in September, which agreed to the new 2030 development goals; but also the finance for development conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July, and the new framework for disaster risk reduction agreed in Sendai, Japan, in March. Collectively, these agreements will provide a foundation stone for global sustainable development for billions across the world in the coming decades.
While a deal in Paris is still not assured, the signs have become increasingly positive in recent months. And this is in large part because of the proliferation of new national and sub-national climate initiatives, including legislation and regulation, being adopted by countries across the world.
In 2014, alone, new climate laws and policies were introduced across a large swathe of industrialised and developing countries from Pakistan to Peru, to Poland and the Philippines, as a study published in April by the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics underlines. Seen in the big picture of the period since the Kyoto Protocol was agreed in 1997, the number of climate laws and policies in the 99 countries under review by the Grantham Institute has grown from 54 to 800 in 2014, distributed relatively evenly between the industrialised and developing world.
This shift is a key part of a wider transformation taking place. Previously, much of the political debate on global warming was framed around narratives of sharing a global burden — with countries often trying to minimise their share.
Now, many countries view the issue as one of national self-interest. And growing number of nations, across every continent, is trying to maximise the benefits of global warming measures by embracing low-carbon growth and development and to better prepare for the impact of climate change.
One manifestation of this fundamental shift, which would be catalysed by a global warming agreement in Paris, is the potential creation of what may ultimately become a truly global carbon trading market involving Asia-Pacific, the European Union (EU) and currently state-level schemes in the Americas. Already, almost 40 countries and more than 20 cities, states and provinces use carbon pricing mechanisms or are planning to do so.
Moreover, in a recent report by the Climate Markets and Investment Association, it is estimated that carbon pricing mechanisms around the world will raise approximately $22 billion (Dh80.91 billion) this year in schemes covering more than 20 per cent of global emissions. This is up from the approximately $15 billion in 2014.
While much attention is inevitably focused on the EU scheme, currently the largest in the world, this potentially game-changing political and economic development is also being driven by political leaders in the Americas and Asia-Pacific. The fact that Asia-Pacific is helping lead the way on this agenda was underlined when Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in September a 2017 start date for the regulatory rollout of China’s national emissions trading system which will probably eventually surpass the size of that in the 28 EU states.
However, China is far from alone in moving in this direction of travel in Asia-Pacific. For instance, Kazakhstan introduced a carbon trading scheme in 2012, becoming the first Asian country to do so. Moreover, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung last month signed off on the nation’s new carbon market scheme.
Earlier this year too, South Korea began its own trading scheme, now the world’s second largest. It is a bold, pioneering move that underlines the country’s political leadership in the fight against global warming.
And this all comes in the context of China’s own moves toward a carbon trading scheme. Last year, Beijing embraced a National Plan for Tackling Climate Change which includes a target to, by 2020, cut carbon emissions per unit of GDP by between 40-45 per cent from 2005 levels.
This is an ambitious goal at a time of continuing industrialisation and may not be fully realised. However, in order to maintain social cohesion, Beijing recognises growth must increasingly be sustainable given the country’s vulnerability to some of the worst impacts of climate change.
As these examples underline, at the heart of these promising developments in Asia-Pacific is a growing belief that carbon trading is the most economically efficient way to meet the political ambition of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Along with countries like New Zealand, Thailand, and Indonesia, this vanguard represents what could become an Asia-Pacific carbon trading hub in the battle against global warming.
This system may in turn be linked with the EU scheme, which has been widely studied by international policymakers, including in Beijing, as they consider the design of their own programmes. With a view to maintaining its lead on the climate change agenda, the EU system is currently being reformed as part of Europe’s targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030.
By linking Europe and Asia-Pacific in this way, it is possible to envisage a wider scheme with the Americas too, which would be a potentially game-changing development in the fight against global warming. This would include state-level schemes in California, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in nine Northeastern states in America, and in Quebec too, in Canada.
Taken overall, a Paris deal will be the final piece in the post-2015 global sustainability framework jigsaw. Such an agreement would also bolster the prospects of a carbon system emerging, from Asia-Pacific to the Americas, with potential to become a game-changing development in the fight against global warming.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Policy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics.