02/06/2013 12:49 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

Climate: Looking for Progress in All the Wrong Places?

Like most global schmooze fests, the Delhi Sustainable Development Forum organizes itself around problems -- which can make it tricky to tease out what the diverse commentators really think about solutions.

But there is a tantalizing thread here -- that we have been looking for climate progress in the wrong places, chasing the will-o-the-wisp -- big-bang, top-down solutions led by presidents and prime ministers and enacted through diplomacy.

Jeffrey Sachs provided the basic framework for the conversation, by citing the fact that the journal Nature had given the three great treaties that emerged from the Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago -- on climate, biological diversity, and desertification -- all failing grades, not because they were not well crafted, but because they failed to intersect with the way the politics and economics of the world they were attempting to protect was evolving.

No one, in Rio, for example, foresaw either the Internet or China's rise to being the major carbon emitter on the globe. Nor was the emergence of the oil and coal industries as the major political brokers in the U.S. taken into account.

But the failing grades, while universally concurred with -- do not elicit calls for "we should just try harder to enact a global set of carbon quotas."

Jonathon Porritt of the British Greens is scathing about the collective failure of governments:
"Governments the world over are failing us in the most extraordinary way -- rich and poor, north and south, autocratic and democratic."

But Porritt doesn't ring his hands and call for more conversation about goals and targets and quotas: he simply wants government to perform a basic and often very local task: holding business accountable through the regulatory process: "Good regulation is not the enemy of sustainable wealth creation, it is the enabler."

A Danish representative, Michael Christenson, glides briefly over the lessons of his country's failed effort to achieve a global climate deal in Copenhagen, and spends his time instead on the city's local efforts, and Denmark's national goals of becoming a carbon neutral region, with new housing requiring no outside energy for heating and cooling, and thousands of miles of bike paths.

Sachs himself reinforces this thread, musing on the difference between the results of his engagement with the UNFCC climate process -- close to zero -- in spite of the huge investment of Chiefs of States and Governments, with the very significant progress made by the much less formalized and structured Millenium Development Goals. He observes that the 189 governments who originally blessed the eight goals in New York in 2000: "Probably thought the goals had the lifetime of a photo op."

But in fact enormous if uneven progress has occurred:

"... the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 per day fell in 2010 to less than half the 1990 rate and during the same period over two billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources. The share of slum dwellers in urban areas declined from 39 per cent in 2000 to 33 per cent in 2012, improving the lives of at least 100 million people."

Deepak Dasgupta, a senior adviser to the Indian Finance Ministry, argues that the central problem of sustainability is how to protect public goods, the commons -- air, water, biological diversity, the climate, and that it is local government which acts fastest to protect public commons. He cites the fact that it was local government in Beijing that is shutting down factories in response to air pollution -- even while the lack of progress in climate negotiations suggests a waning of support at national levels for action on global commons issues.

He argues that institutions which emerged from World War II -- the UN, the World Bank, the IMF "don't work any more -- we need to bring these problems back home for solutions."

Venkatesh Valluri, of Ingersoll-Rand (India), assessing the nexus between energy, climate and water makes a sobering but hopeful prediction: governments will act, because if they don't, they will be undone by civil unrest.

He cites recent street riots in Gurgaon, the suburb of Delhi that represents more than any other place the globalized, high-tech and high income, "India Shining." But there is no water -- and Valluri calls the resultant riots that forced the state government to act "Water Wars" and says Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley, is headed for the same kind of uprising.

Valluri wants agreement and convergence -- not around the problem but around the solutions. Firms, technologies and innovations need to come together collaboratively rather than obsessing with each other as competitors. "Everyone wants to waste time, resources and reinvent the wheel. We need to come together." India, he says, wastes 30 percent of its food production because it lacks cold-chains and other crop preservation infrastructure. "But how you can have cold chains -- something Ingersoll is good at - if you don't have the grid? We need solutions that can operate off-grid -- and that's not something my company does." Valluri argues that the process needs collective action, partnerships, and that we need to recognize that the infrastructure that this requires cannot be individually owned, because the base of the pyramid can't qualify for credit -- we need to grow the social commons, not shrink it, to protect the biological commons.

Tom Friedman proposes a new explanation for why the historic tolerance for governmental inactivity on global sustainability issues is no longer holding. He points to the roughly 300 million Indians who have acquired income levels that make them, in Indian terms, "middle-class consumers." This cohort -- and their global equivalents in China and Brazil -- has some stake in the status quo, however far short of their aspirations their current prosperity falls.

But thanks to the fact that we now live in a hyper-connected world, in which even the poorest Indian village has access to all of the information on a smart-phone, there are another 300 million Indians whose incomes have not gone up, but whose knowledge and aspirations have.

"These people are not middle class. But they think like middle class people -- only they don't have any stake in things as they are, because they aren't getting anything." Friedman calls these "the Virtual Middle Class," and argues that the same phenomenon is building in China and the Arab world. "If you follow the social protests over the editorial censorship in the Hong Kong news -- it was a Twitter-based back-lash" from people who learn from the Internet that societies can combine prosperity with personal freedom and the security and dignity of the rule of law.

He argues, "China has strong government, weak civil society -- India the reverse -- but they are converging as their hyper-connected public change the rules of the game."

This new era of citizen aspiration, expectation and demand, of course, emerged from distributed, horizontal technologies -- and the overwhelming impression I took from the Delhi Sustainability Summit was that a new consensus is emerging -- that climate and other sustainability issues will yield not to centralized diplomatic treaty making, but to horizontal, bottom-up distributed innovation and collaboration.

This is very good for the future -- because the other thing that is clear at this conference is that the traditional, wasteful, high carbon and high resource strategy for escaping poverty simply isn't available for three billion people. Wasteful, high resource development requires cheap and abundant coal, oil, natural gas, steel, copper, cement. While the world still has a lot of these resources, and more can be found -- what's left is too pricey to lift billions out of poverty. India, China, Pakistan and Africa need fuel at $2 a gallon, or less, as the U.S., Europe and Japan enjoyed when they had their growth spurts -- if they want to follow the wasteful, high carbon patterns those societies used. But what is available is oil and natural gas at $4 a gallon. Growth strategies that take lots of oil and gas -- and emit lots of carbon in doing so -- cannot work for most of the people still trapped in poverty.

But even at this summit the old framework -- can we combine sustainability and poverty alleviation? -- keeps cropping up. The idea that the fastest economic growth will come with the most wasteful, short-term perspective dies hard. We need to recognize a simple truth:
If the middle class, and virtual middle class, in Asia, Latin America and Africa cannot achieve prosperity with mines and all the damage they cause, we will have to find a way to do with minds, and all the clever tricks they can devise. Oil at $100 a barrel should have ended that debate.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."