Look Beyond The UN For Climate Solutions

12/20/2010 02:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Another year, another UN climate change summit and still no sign of a legally binding global deal. Expectations for Cancún were so low that its piecemeal achievements have won widespread praise. But once again negotiators have kicked the tough questions into the long grass. Voluntary and inadequate pledges have been recorded with no means of enforcement. A 'Green Fund' to help developing countries has been established with no guarantees on where the money will come from.

Cancún's questionable progress should not silence calls for negotiations to move away from the discredited UN process to direct talks between a handful of key nations. This shift from multilateralism to a 'megalateral' model would greatly increase the chances of solving a problem which can wait no longer for bureaucratic dithering.

The time has come for the big players to take control. Just as President Obama may resort to federal regulation of emissions in the face of congressional opposition to cap and trade legislation, at the global level dominant nations must eschew UN gridlock and act decisively. The morality of executive fiat depends on its context. The logic behind 'megalateralism' underpinned the Bush administration's decision to bypass the UN over Iraq; but with climate change the end justifies the means.

A 'megalateral' agreement can be global in reach because the bulk of future emissions will be concentrated among only a few countries. The vast majority of states which attend UN conferences are irrelevant when it comes to the necessary emissions cuts. Fairness suggests that those most at risk from climate disruption deserve a voice, but in reality their presence has hindered any chance of the deal they need.

Scientists warn that significant action is required within the current decade to avoid irreversible, dangerous warming. Yet the UN negotiations have lost all sense of urgency. In Poznan, 2008, diplomats insisted that the deal must be struck in Copenhagen the following year. When things fell apart in Copenhagen, leaders reassured us that Cancún 2010 would bring resolution.

However, most wrote off the possibility of a legally binding deal at Cancún long before the summit began. Key players, from US negotiator Todd Stern to Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh were admitting publicly several months prior that "there is no breakthrough possible in Cancún." Thanks to Wikileaks we now know the president of the EU had "given up" on Cancún as far back as December 2009. Astonishingly, the UN's climate chief confesses she does not foresee a final agreement in her lifetime.

The UN talks are painful to watch. Any one of the 194 nations can -- and often does -- delay proceedings over anything from a comma to a draft text. With so many participants a UN deal can impose only as much as bottleneck countries agree to. The Kyoto Protocol, for example, accomplished so little because of concessions given to ensure Japanese, Russian and Canadian involvement. As if opposition from crucial players was not enough, the likes of Tuvalu and Bolivia have been able to bring negotiations to a standstill in Copenhagen and Cancún.

Britain's Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne dismisses as uninformed the "armchair critics" who doubt the likelihood of a UN agreement. Yet Huhne errs in citing the successful Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer. Multilateral action on ozone occurred only because it was in the self-interest of individual countries (notably the US) to act even without international cooperation. Significant benefits including billions of dollars worth of avoided cancer-related health care expenses coupled with relatively low cost solutions made it a no-brainer.

In contrast, consensus on the economic case for reducing carbon has yet to be reached. While Montreal provided benefits to current generations because it aimed to restore the ozone by 2050, some place less value on avoiding climate change damage 100 years from now.

Of course, these financial concerns would not be fixed by altering the negotiation process. But at least a 'megalateral' approach would allow major emitters to concentrate on a manageable list of agendas. Free from UN strictures, they could also include non-environmental issues such as currency and trade to compensate potential losers. With five parties instead of 194, compromise is possible. In the dying hours of the Copenhagen summit South Africa, Brazil, India, China and the US broke away from the formal UN process and scrambled together a face-saving (if unambitious) agreement. Imagine what they could attain in two weeks.

Critics will point to the lack of accountability and democracy in such an approach. But ask the people of Tuvalu if they would rather have representation at an ineffectual UN conference or real action to stop climate disruption, and there can be only one answer. Rising sea levels will not wait while UN delegates dither.

Some argue we must trust the private sector to make green development profitable enough to slow warming. This is wishful thinking. Win-win opportunities exist, but not to the extent required to cut emissions radically. The necessity and possibility of a top-down, international approach has not disappeared as other critics of the UN process have claimed. Nor is it acceptable to abandon mitigation efforts and concentrate instead on adaptation. But a coordinated intergovernmental response to climate change will require a new, more exclusive theater for negotiations.

Tommy Stadlen is a London-based strategy consultant who specializes in sustainability. He is an op-ed contributor to media outlets across the world on climate change and sustainable business.