Contraction and convergence

The adoption of a global programme of ‘Contraction and  Convergence’ offers the potential to break the stalemate in the international negotiations on climate change and to set in place a far more effective and inclusive political mechanism to curb the consumption of fossil fuels in all countries, says John Broad.

THE climate change negotiations being held under the auspices of the United Nations are stuck in an apparently intractable impasse. The US Congress refuses to allow ratification of the Kyoto Protocol until major developing countries commit themselves to curbing their own greenhouse gas emissions. Congress argues that if energy demand continues to rise on current trends, developing countries will be responsible for more than half of global emissions by 2020.  Hence they have the potential to undermine any cuts, however dramatic, undertaken by the industrialised countries.

Developing countries, meanwhile, argue that historically, emissions from industrialised countries are the main cause of global warming; that, on a per capita basis, developing countries’ emissions are up to 30 times less than those of industrialised states; that their priority is development, for which they want to use fossil fuels as the North has done; and that the North should use its accumulated wealth to solve the problem.

Partly as a result of this impasse, the Kyoto Protocol, which is the culmination of eight years of negotiations and which in some respects is a historic achievement, is totally inadequate in comparison with the kind of comprehensive, long-term, global agreement which is necessary if humankind is to solve the problem of climate change.  Target reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are set only for the industrialised countries, and at implied rates of reduction which are much lower than that which climatologists have suggested is necessary.  Nothing is said about the cuts which must be achieved globally, or about a target date for achieving them.  Even if the industrialised countries all ratified and implemented the treaty, global emissions are likely to grow.  Who is to say whether this would result from industrialised countries’ not cutting their emissions sufficiently or from the developing countries’ letting their emissions rise too much?

Potential long-term solution

If  the current logjam is to be unblocked, the diplomatic process must find a means of answering this question.  The only one so far proposed is called ‘Contraction and Convergence’.  This is a programme devised by the Global Commons Institute and advocated by GLOBE International (the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment).  An increasing number of governments in Europe and the South are signalling that they too see it as the basis of a long-term solution.

How would ‘Contraction and Convergence’ work?  ‘Contraction’ refers to the need to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases to a level that would result in establishing what science regards as a probably tolerable atmospheric concentration.  Effectively this would create a global ‘budget’ of greenhouse gas emissions.  This budget necessarily declines over time until a stable point is reached (as the science improves, our perception of  what that point is may change, so any treaty must contain provisions for changing the global budgets).

‘Convergence’ allocates shares in that budget to the emitting nations on the basis of equity. This has three components.  First, the budget is global; every country has shares in the atmosphere and any treaty that allocates its absorptive capacity only to a selection of countries effectively deprives the others.  Second, the current situation whereby allocations are generally proportional to wealth would cease.  Third, allocations should converge over time to a position where entitlements are proportional to population. After convergence, all countries would contract their greenhouse gas emissions equally until the necessary contraction limit is reached.  No inflation of national budgets in response to rising populations would be permitted after an agreed set date.

The fundamental advantage of this approach is that its per capita basis provides an organising principle for the negotiations which all the parties recognise as fair and equitable.  Essentially, humanity is facing a global security crisis and needs to drastically ration what is currently a vital resource, the absorptive capacity of the atmosphere.  As Europeans discovered in two World Wars, a rationing system works best when it is perceived to be fair.  As the Global Commons Institute puts it, this is equity for survival.

Implementation of this mechanism could help overcome the current international stalemate by addressing a number of the key concerns of the players.  Acceptance by Northern governments that the global emissions budget should converge to equity would be a major step and would encourage Southern governments to accept a cap on their own emissions.  This in turn would fulfil the demands of the US for an international process which commits all countries to reducing or limiting their greenhouse gas emissions, as stipulated by the Byrd-Hagel Resolution passed unanimously by the US Senate.

There are practical implications of reaching a long-term global agreement on an equitable basis which quickly become apparent.  Developing countries would have a direct incentive to conserve energy and transfer quickly to renewable, non-fossil-fuel-based energy paths.  For under the ‘Contraction and Convergence’ mechanism, they will acquire surplus emission entitlements which they can sell on the open market to finance the creation of renewable energy infrastructures.  These in turn will increase their surplus entitlements.

Industrial countries, with their much higher per capita energy use and thus greenhouse gas production, may choose to buy emission permits to gain a little time.  But they will need to make major cuts and their main efforts would need to go into conservation and renewable technologies.  With appropriate monitoring, verification and enforcement, this trading mechanism, administered by a democratically accountable international body, could help achieve overall contraction more rapidly and cheaply, and certainly it should not suffer from the ‘leakage’ expected to result from the sub-global mechanisms set up under the Kyoto Protocol. But the result might be much more positive.  The world might discover, for the first time, that it is possible to co-operate at a global level and work towards a common goal; it might prove to be much easier than expected to de-link the historic connection between the burning of fossil fuels and the creation of human wealth.

‘Contraction and Convergence’ thus has the potential to be the most rational, effective and rapid means to end the consumption of fossil fuels globally.  In the words of Aubrey Meyer, Director of the Global Commons Institute, ‘The integrated implementation of this ‘Contraction and Convergence Allocation and Trade’ programme can turn a presently dangerous global vicious circle of political stalemate and ecological dissipation into virtuous cycles of recovery and renewal.  The consensus for survival needs this structure.  Political and ecological anarchy is an alternative that guarantees nothing but increasing tragedy.                                   

John Broad is Chairman of the Global Commons Trust, a charitable foundation.

The above article first appeared in The Ecologist (Vol. 29, No. 2, March/April 1999) and is reproduced with the kind permission of its editors.