A pattern is emerging in the geopolitics of climate change this year: Countries are banding together to begin to map out strategies to adapt to and mitigate climate change outside of the UNFCCC process and ahead of a final international climate agreement.
With the U.S. and Australia — both key players for a clear global cleantech market signal — notably lagging behind the rest of the developed world in managing national climate affairs, governments in other developed countries and emerging market countries are lining up to take first mover advantages.
Wagering on how long it's going to take the laggards to get their affairs in order, the policy community is consolidating what bare minimum can be done at the international level and forging national, regional and local governance ties and legislative infrastructure in the meantime.
Kate Levick, head of government partnerships at the Carbon Disclosure Project, explains that an overarching international agreement would be handy for guidelines but isn't necessary:
"If we are to reach the emissions reductions that are in accordance with the science, we need overarching targets that can only be reached by international agreement. However, there are prospects of more immediate action at sub-national level and through bilateral and group co-operation."
Think of how international agreements are implemented in the U.S.: The executive branch negotiates treaties, which have to be ratified by the Senate, and then Congress writes legislation to bring U.S. laws into line with the treaty. Many times implementation funding comes along with this, which is then filtered down to states, which pass their own legislation surrounding policy implementation, often adding new requirements for how money is to be spent, money which is often doled out to local government levels for final implementation.
It's often easier to get local governments cooperating with one another than nations, especially when they can perceive a common problem, says Gary Becker, executive director of the Local Government Institute of Wisconsin.
He sees it with water standards: Universal water quality standards are regulated by the federal government; water conservation, comes from the state government; and where water resources overlap between two counties or municipalities, it is up to those local government institutions to collaborate conservation efforts based upon the universal standards established at state level.
"The closer a household is to a problem, the easier it is for them to see the problem and to be motivated to change their behavior," Becker says.
And with budgetary constraints mounting at the local level, local governments are more often collaborating to share provision of government services, as well.
Antoine Spiteri, a social learning theory and group dynamics expert, explains, "Small groups have a better capacity for self-governance than larger groups. In fact, you will find that larger groups fragment themselves into smaller sub-groups so they can function more effectively." And so coalitions will form among regions and municipalities that can perceive like problems.
In Europe, cities and regions are already forming coalitions and readying for changes ahead of EU mandates. "Regions have realized that action on climate change translates into better economic prospects for their citizens," Klaus Kilipp, secretary general of the Association of European Regions, told European environmental publication ENDS.
The EU reported recently that it has enough renewable energy resources that most of its states will be in surplus and in the future could trade that surplus cross-border. That sort of regional cooperation doesn't end with the EU.
A study out at the end of last year from the World Bank finds that in sub-Saharan Africa, pooling and trading energy resources across borders could save "$2 billion a year in the costs of power system development" and "puts Africa on a cleaner development path in terms of carbon emissions ... displacing 20,000 megawatts of thermal power in the process and saving 70 million tons a year of carbon emissions."
Africa has been trying to raise finances to further develop regional power pools since the 1990's and, with the exception of the South African Power Pool, has so far met with failure, but great potential exists.
What this shows is that inter- and intra-regional measures can be effective for creating adaptation and mitigation infrastructure. The technology necessary to build that adaptation and mitigation infrastructure doesn't necessarily have to come from above: It will more likely come through partnerships, on bilateral scales either between countries or trading blocks.
For example, China is running an agricultural demonstration project with Liberia and in association with Nigeria and Standard Chartered bank has launched an SME (small and medium enterprise) banking network. China and Nigeria both have rising middle classes (ripe socio-economic material for entrepreneurship) and thus a shared perception of a problem. Groups like ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability also help local level governments learn collaborate and learn from one another.
And policy makers are keen to increase developing country networks. Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Program, said in a talk at the London School of Economics recently that she has seen an "exponential increase in South-South cooperation."
Sharing Support and Technology
The most pressing concern, it seems, is getting the finance moving for adaptation and mitigation technology development. Both are on the agenda this weekend for the 17-member Major Economies Forum, the world's major polluters, as they meet in
Washington to advance talks toward a global climate change.
Policy makers frequently mention the far-off goal of a globally integrated cap-and-trade scheme. The first steps to that are integration among like-development stage countries.
"It's clear that businesses and business decision-making is driven by national and regional policy far more than international policy," says Mark Kenber, policy director at The Climate Group. "In fact, the clean development mechanism is the only really business-relevant environmental implication of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change."
There is an additional advantage to all of these micro-level actions: Each can be taken as an experimental phase of an adaptation strategy.
A case in point is China's difficulties successfully implementing renewable energy power adoption, where the national government's pressure to install wind power has led to implementation problems at the local level. The lesson is that at the local level in developing countries, capacity building is key.
Reut Barak, water researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, has been looking comparatively at governance level policy implementation, and concludes,
"I don't think you can do better in the international level than the local level. At the end of the day, policy implementation is in the local level, and unless you have mechanisms to implement policies which were designed at the international level, at the local level you're not going to make any difference."