Return to plan A

Guest post by Simon Zadek

My article, ‘Revising plan A’, published here  on chinadialogue, has generated some heated responses, covered now on various forums including With 48 hours to go before the end of the Copenhagen talks, I thought it relevant to offer a couple of reflections based on my original argument and the current situation.

My argument, in a nutshell, was that any top-down multilateral agreement relying for success on sovereign abatement commitments and international public finance funding credibly verified outcomes is doomed to failure. Instead, i argued, we need to rely on the power of national interests, supported where possible by international co-operation. Of the many national interests that might exist, I argued, growth and development comes top on everyone’s list, so ‘low carbon growth and development’ should and will be the touchstone of success in climate management.

Respondents to my argument told me that I should not be so pessimistic, that some international agreements worked, and that national self-interest would not do the job alone (apologies if i have missed the breadth and nuance of the arguments).

Being right is not the point, but getting it right most definitely is.

If "Plan A" was indeed a conventionally-understood strong deal in Copenhagen, then we have underachieved. If this was the only way to save us from ecological meltdown, then such underachievement is indeed a disaster unfolding. My take is different: first, we will under-achieve in conventionally understood terms (too little legally binding commitment, too little public money); second, we are not doomed if we catalyze self-interested action, raising its timely ambition through international support. India’s solar drive, China’s extensive investments in low carbon growth, Europe’s carbon trading framework, and Brazil’s action on deforestation are all unilateral moves that work better through international co-operation.

My point is not that national, self-interested actions are instead of, but rather than that they are the heartland of real change. Hence the article’s title "Revising plan A". They might be effectively catalyzed by international action, but they are also in danger of being distracted by them, especially in weaker countries which could end up with yet another generation of rent-seekers rather than wealth creators.

Driving low carbon growth and development does require action on adaptation, which does require public as well as private money, and in some cases international public finance. Technology transfer is not going to be enhanced through a global climate deal, but does have to be facilitated through technology and country(ies) specific deals. Reducing deforestation and land use changes (REDD+) is hugely important, and will benefit from a strong international component, but even here money will flow mainly bilaterally when push comes to shove.

So far from being pessimistic, I am wildly optimistic. The difference is that i am looking somewhere else for my optimism, where real communities, domestic politics, national government actions, and private money rule the day. One last thing: a stronger global deal can be induced through action on the ground. That means that we need a political agreement now that does not "freeze" the deal, then we need 1,000 days of intensive nation-level action to show how this stuff can work at scale. Then we can re-visit the deal and I warrant the appetite for more and stronger will be greater as Chinese, US, European and Indian economic interests converge on not just the logic but the practice of low carbon economics.