“Big strategies can grow from little ideas (initiatives), and in strange places, not to mention at unexpected times, almost anyone in the organisation can prove to be a strategist. All he or she needs is a good idea and the freedom and resources required to pursue it.”
– Henry Mintzberg,
The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning
THE END OF GRAND STRATEGY
Copenhagen represents a watershed moment for our generation. It was the moment where the grand strategy of the environmental movement failed. It was the moment where the expectation of an imminent solution, what has been called a “fair, ambitious and binding” agreement receded into some distant, largely unknown future.
What does climate strategy after Copenhagen look like? How have both strategy and tactics changed?
Some have argued that the overall approach of trying to achieve a globally binding treaty is flawed. In the aftermath of Copenhagen, some critics sign-posted a new era that would end “magical climate thinking… that promised a painless and even prosperous transition to a low- carbon future with the tools already at hand.” Critics argued that such ‘magical thinking’ prioritised an international agreement as the key to climate action, by proponents who overestimated its impact and underestimated the technical, political and economic barriers still standing in the way of that low-carbon future. However, these critics, while voicing concerns felt by many in the climate change community, miss a critical point.
We do need a globally binding treaty in order to ensure that we can account for emissions reductions. Without an agreement of the type that Copenhagen was supposed to achieve, it will be impossible to measure and verify the claims a country makes about their emission reductions in terms of their targets. In other words, while Copenhagen may be labeled a failure, the work leading up to Copenhagen represents a remarkable achievement. However, as Copenhagen showed, the problems associated with developing a regime that allows countries to track and measure emissions from sources as diverse as land-use and energy consumption are truly formidable.
So far, current efforts have not yielded a mass scale reduction in global emissions that science demands. However, rather than deride these efforts as inadequate, we must recognize them as simultaneously necessary and insufficient. Thus, while some critics of the mainstream climate movement rightly argue the need for a course correction away from a sole focus on implementing a globally binding treaty, their rhetoric can sometimes – incorrectly – imply that such a treaty is not needed.
The broader criticism of ‘the Treaty movement’ is that it requires agreement on everything in order to make progress. It’s literally an all or nothing deal. The political maneuvering and conflict that doomed the Copenhagen Accord provided a painful lesson: there are few halfway houses where the treaty process is concerned. Why is this though? Roger Pielke Jr argues that the “iron law of climate policy” dictates that concern over economic growth will always win out over climate change policies, if the two are at odds. This is what happened in Copenhagen. The “iron law” came into play and won.
The ‘iron law’ points towards another critique of the Treaty movement; that it vastly underestimates the technical and economic challenges that face efforts to reduce emissions in real time. In other words, the achievement of rapid emissions reduction once a treaty is signed could remain impossible without carefully shaped policies and investments that acknowledge the iron law – and its political implications.
Indeed, trouble arises when we equate the achievement of a scientific goal broadly with the solution to political problems. The scientists of the Manhattan Project believed the Second World War would be over with the Trinity Test – build the bomb, demonstrate its effectiveness, and negotiate an end to hostilities. But in reality, a political solution was only achieved after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Technical and scientific progress rarely equate neatly to political progress.
The ‘technical’ achievement of a treaty, great as that may be when it happens, does not in and of itself signal an end to the problems of human induced climate change. Once the international community agrees on rules to govern decarbonisation, the businesses and governments of the world will have to roll up their sleeves and work out how to actually decarbonise their economies while living within the boundaries of economic and political reality.
SYSTEMIC SPREAD BETTING
The elegant answer to this question – “what’s our strategy post-Copenhagen?” – emerging from the climate movement is that multiple strategies are needed. Whereas the road to Copenhagen was the culmination of a single grand strategy, post-Copenhagen strategy will look like what could be called “emergent strategy,” or a strategy whose overall pattern emerges from many strategies.
It’s worth noting that this argument, the need for multiple strategies, is not new. For example, Gwyn Prins & Steve Rayner, in “The Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy” published in 2007, argued against Kyoto-type instruments and a “silver buckshot” approach. However, it took a Copenhagen before such a position was even conceivable within the Treaty movement.
‘Systemic spread betting’ is a term that describes post-Copenhagen climate strategy. Many mainstream climate NGOs and climate groups have slimmed down their commitments to the treaty process and either shifted staff to other areas, or have focused them on regional efforts – seeking to influence multiple pressure points within the system. It may well be that resources once again cycle back to the Treaty come Rio+20, when public visibility and excitement once again build up. But for the moment, the broader environmental movement is going through a period of trying to decide which other strategies it will invest in.
THE GIGATONNE LAB
According to current thinking, if we are to avoid dangerous climate change, global emissions need to peak between 2015-2020. A realistic risk management perspective suggests that a net reduction of approximately 44-34 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (or equivalent amounts of greenhouse gases, as measured by radiative forcing effects) must be removed from the atmosphere as quickly as is practicable.
The Gigatonne Lab is a possible strategy for helping achieve such a goal. It involves convening a “coalition of the willing” composed of senior players in industry, finance, and governance, who together have the skills and resources necessary to develop a technically realistic decarbonisation programme. This programme will set a target of achieving a one gigatonne reduction of CO2e within 2 years from the beginning of operations.
The aim of the Lab would be to engender momentum by demonstrating that it is possible to achieve a significant and measurable reduction of emissions within a time-frame commensurate with the urgency of the decarbonisation challenge. Given the need for emissions to peak before the end of this decade; and on the basis of this real world experience, the Lab will draw out relevant policy lessons, technical innovations and financing implications for replicating such emissions reductions on a broader scale.
The Gigatonne Lab aspires to shift our attention from a pure policy focus to action-on-the- ground, which will then generate valuable policy lessons from practice. It is an invitation to anyone seeking practical strategies to address the challenge we have ahead of us. Imagine for a minute that such an initiative succeeded, and that by the measurement standards set within the UNFCCC context, a one gigatonne reduction was achieved within two years. The policy lessons from such an achievement would be invaluable. What’s more, such a path would simultaneously be grounded in political, financial, social and technological realities. A route towards decarbonization would become, perhaps for the first time, visible.
Excerpts taken from James C Scott, Seeing Like A State: Why Certain Large Scale Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Fail. For more information on where a reduction of a gigatonne might be found please see: “Redefining What’s Possible for Clean Energy by 2020” @ http://www.gigatonthrowdown.org/files/Gigaton_EntireReport.pdf
Zaid Hassan and Jeff Stottlemyer
Zaid Hassan, Emily Wilkinson, www.350.org