Policy makers looking to move quickly to address climate change are increasingly turning to a little-known mechanism in the social sciences called “clubs.”
These clubs, or smaller groups of like-minded countries, can more easily and quickly coordinate policy than partners in big global pacts like the Paris Agreement. Smaller groups of nations are collaborating to address climate-causing pollution in various settings, from a coalition dedicated to phasing out coal to a group concerned with Arctic issues.
“I think The Paris Accord is an extremely important framework, but we need to figure out how to accelerate it,” Catherine McKenna, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, told Bloomberg Environment.
Governments have been struggling to negotiate global agreements to address climate change for close to three decades now, and now the “America First” policies of the Trump Administration are leading the U.S. to abandon its previous multilateral stance on climate change.
Even with the success of the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer and the nascent Paris Agreement on climate change, some environmentalists say progress is coming too slowly to avert a rapid rise in global temperatures and extreme weather.
“Winning slowly is the same as losing,” environmental activist and author Bill McKibben recently wrote.
Creating Climate Momentum Without the U.S.
Led by Canada and Great Britain, the Powering Past Coal Alliance was announced at the COP23 in Germany last November. It supports a phaseout of coal power in developed countries by 2030 and the rest of the world by 2050.
“If the U.S. isn’t going to show leadership on climate change, we’re going move ahead without them,” McKenna said.
“Countries want to get out of coal, but they need support, both politically and financially,” she said.
The Paris Accord has nearly 200 member states, while the Powering Past Coal Alliance currently has 33 member states—with a goal of having 50 by the end of the year.
Notably absent from the list are many of the world’s biggest coal users such as the U.S., China, India, Germany, and Russia. Still, McKenna says programs like the Alliance provide ways other countries can step up, without losing the momentum of Paris.
“Financing this transition is key, and I think programs like this one send a big signal to the market,” McKenna said. “I think the challenge for some counties is to get them to realize that renewables are actually cheaper than coal.”
Economists such as Yale’s Bill Nordhaus have pointed out that curbing carbon dioxide emissions requires a massive deployment of new technologies. Those costs, he wrote, are incurred in the present, for benefits that accrue far in the future. And this creates a strong incentive for so-called free riding—reaping the benefits of an action, without being required to contribute to the costs.
Together with other club partners, McKenna feels the benefits of action will galvanize momentum, and provide incentives for other countries to join in.
“I just returned from China, and I can tell you that they are extremely committed to climate action,” McKenna said. “I saw this happen with negotiations leading up to the Paris agreement as well, where you’ll have a high-ambition coalition and eventually people will want to join.”
As Canada assumes presidency of the G7 for 2018, McKenna said she thinks climate change will be a key topic at this June’s summit in Quebec. And that she is “very optimistic” other countries will be announcing a coal-phase out date before then.
Arctic Ground Zero
According to a new paper in Nature Climate, gains from club cooperation in the Arctic region can realize “nearly 90 percent of the potential for abating black carbon, can be reached by as few as four countries acting in self-interest alone,” said Steffen Kallbekken, research director at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway.
Black carbon refers to the tiny particles produced by incomplete combustion. It’s what makes soot dark, an unwanted byproduct of diesel-powered vehicles, forest fires, or burning agricultural waste. And it’s the second-biggest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide.
Black carbon is a particular problem at the top of the world, where it darkens Arctic snow and glaciers, making them absorb more heat from the sun, accelerating melting.
While addressing climate change will ultimately require cooperation on a global scale, clubs like the eight-member Arctic Council can be much more nimble, because they don’t require the same investment in complex, expensive institutions as large multilateral treaties.
“It isn’t necessarily for a big idea to also have an equally large bureaucracy to yield impactful results,” said Kallbekken.
In the case of the Arctic Council, the pivotal player in climate negotiations is always Russia.
“Russia has a very large potential to reduce emissions,” Kallbekken told Bloomberg Environment. “Ironically, it’s the countries like the Nordics and Canada, which have already taken measures to limit carbon, who now have the least leverage to bargain with in climate negotiations.”
The U.S., which under President Trump has indicated it will leave the Paris Agreement, also is an Arctic Council member.
‘Like Trying to Stop a Supertanker’
Compared to carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere for approximately a century, actions to reduce so-called “short-lived climate pollutants” (SLCPs) such as black carbon and methane would yield quicker results.
“Fighting warming by just focusing on CO2 is like trying to slow down a super tanker—it takes much longer,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “SLCPs however, are more like a speedboat—once you cut the engine, it stops.”
And that’s where so-called “minilateralist” climate agreements are proving their value.
“One of most important things about the club approach is that it disaggregates the broad problem of climate change down into manageable pieces,” said Zaelke.
According to United Nations data, fast action to reduce SLCPs could slow down warming by as much as 1.1 degree Fahrenheit through 2050.
The Arctic Council is playing a key voluntary role by sharing data, which can be turned into solutions on the ground, Zaelke said.
“If we start solving one piece of the problem, and prove it can be done efficiently, then other countries are much more likely to follow along.”
In the U.S. alone, black carbon emissions have dropped dramatically because of regulations on diesel engines.
Other Roads Forward
The U.N. estimates that current pledges under the Paris Agreement deliver only about one third of what is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
While the Paris Agreement always envisioned national commitments becoming stronger down the road, some governments are using the club model to create new avenues now for cooperative climate action.
As part of their climate action plans, 119 companies—including Google, Facebook, and Walmart—have committed to sourcing renewable energy for 100 percent of their operations through the RE100 initiative.
Other areas for climate clubs include the livestock sector, responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But until quite recently, farming has been almost completely absent from greenhouse gas reduction targets and carbon pricing.
“Developed and developing countries have disagreed for years about how to treat agriculture in climate negotiations,” said Lini Wollenberg, a research professor at the Gund Institute for Environment.
Emissions from farms include methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from manure and cattle belching, as well as ozone-depleting nitrous oxide, a byproduct of nitrogen fertilizer in the soil.
For the first time ever, negotiators at the U.N.'s climate convention in Bonn, Germany—a followup to the 2015 talks that led to the Paris Agreement—last year agreed to “jointly address” agriculture emissions by improving feed quality, reducing waste, and better managing fertilizer use.
So while the big global pact is moving to address the issue, Wollenberg said climate funds are playing a more immediate role. The BioCarbon Fund at the World Bank includes projects with a livestock component. Even large companies like the Netherland’s FrieslandCampina are creating a group among nonstate actors targeting livestock.
“These multilateral actions attract state attention and build networks that lay the foundation for club-like action,” she said.