Climate governance experiments

Solutions abound for a world mired in treaty paralysis.

by Matthew Hoffmann
Bixi bikes

BIXI, a public bicycle rental program designed for urban centres, currently operates in more than 15 cities around the world. (Photo credit: The Power of Forever Photography/Stockphoto)

The dust has settled on the latest round of global climate negotiations, with glimmers of hope that an international treaty to combat this most serious of problems could be in the offing in the near future. For decades, the world has relied on multilateral treaty-making as a means to address climate change and other vexing challenges. Yet, even though negotiations at the 2011 U.N. Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa, were not a complete failure, it is time to recognize that in 20 years of trying, U.N. treaty-making has been fearfully inadequate in meeting the particular challenge of climate change. Another path must be pursued either in place of or, at the very least, in conjunction with, the U.N. process.

Making a radical shift in the global response to climate change may seem daunting, but fortunately, the world is already awash in exciting alternatives. Global networks of urban centres—such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and Cities for Climate Protection, a program of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), both of which had headquarters in Toronto, with David Miller heading up C40 during his time as mayor—are working to alter municipal economies, transportation systems and energy use. Corporations, environmental NGOs and governments are forming alliances—including The Climate Group, the Connected Urban Development program and ClimateWise—to devise ways to deliver climate-friendly technologies and move towards low-carbon economies. In the global North and South, state and provincial governments, along with environmental organizations and corporations, are also developing carbon markets that promise low-cost means of reducing emissions. Meanwhile, the province of Ontario is engaged in the most ambitious of these programs in North America—the Western Climate Initiative—in partnership with Quebec, British Columbia and California. These more localized innovations, or climate governance experiments, are reshaping how individuals, communities, cities, provinces, corporations and nations respond to climate change.

But will they be enough to avert the crisis? Given their small size and relative newness, how can they nudge the world toward a low-carbon path? We do not have an answer to the first question yet, but research on these experiments has begun revealing answers to the second. Climate governance experiments, through their impacts on politics and markets, have the potential to spark real transformation in societies and economies. They push the boundaries by creating uneven playing fields that generate new coalitions committed to action, and they may be able to spur wider change, as governments, U.N. negotiators and even global markets react.

These programs also provide the infrastructure for action on a larger scale. By building technological know-how and political capacity closer to the level of the citizenry, climate governance experiments can create the public desire to act more forcefully as well as provide the tools necessary to accomplish more.

A number of these climate experiments are partnerships among corporations, NGOs and major urban centres. Cities are motivated to explore climate-friendly technologies for the economic benefits they promise, corporations find cities ideal places to pilot new technologies, and NGOs bring the cities and corporations together. These collaborations demonstrate to city officials that climate-friendly technology can help reduce emissions, enhance transportation and energy delivery systems, and benefit their populaces economically. As for corporations, they learn of a new demand for innovative products.

The Climate Group’s LED lighting project is a great example of this process. The organization’s large-scale product demonstrations have shown that the technology can be beneficial for cities. Lighting accounts for 10 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. By networking municipal governments and corporations, The Climate Group has facilitated a global pilot program to bring LED street lighting, which gives off 50–70 percent lower emissions than traditional lighting, to New York, London, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Calcutta and other major cities.

Similarly, the C40 group works to link large cities and spread best practices developed around the world in an effort to grow markets for climate-friendly technology and reduce the carbon footprint of major urban areas. Toronto has been a key participant in C40 in the past and, at the organization’s summit in June 2011, city officials reported on the development of a Smart Grid program for North York.

This kind of experimentation has the potential to spur change in multiple dimensions. Firms will compete to participate in these new technological markets. As more cities engage in these initiatives, multiple building standards, energy efficiency, energy sourcing and transportation policies will evolve, increasing the incentives for and constituencies that would support broad, uniform policies. Provincial and national governments will need to engage with markets for renewable energy and other technologies that will emerge. All of this will build the political momentum for global action.

As we are slowly learning, a global climate treaty alone may not be capable of driving our collective response to climate change. But climate governance experiments might create the conditions for diverse groups to collaborate and agree on an effective global climate treaty. Although these experiments are new and it is still unclear just how effective they will be, group collaborations around the world are pushing the envelope for climate action, demonstrating what is possible and catalyzing larger responses. In the end, these efforts are enormously important because they provide us with hope that the world will respond effectively—a sentiment that is sorely needed as we continue to struggle together with the climate crisis.

Matthew Hoffman is chair of the department of social sciences at UTSC.