The significance of the current Bonn talks is clear (see “Bonn off to a good start“). But what should the outcomes of the negotiations be; what the contents of the final Copenhagen document?

Different institutions have different opinions and approaches that I will discuss in a small series of blogs starting with the Saint James Palace Memorandum, outcome of the St James Nobel Laureate Symposium (26th – 28th May) and signed by the present Nobel Prize winners.

The Saint James Palace Memorandum

In a few words, the contents of the memorandum are marked by a discourse of the “fierce urgency of now” – the word “now” being underlined across the three key action points or “milestones of the Great Transformation” outlined in the memorandum:

  1. Delivering an effective and just global agreement on climate change
  2. Delivering a low carbon energy infrastructure
  3. Delivering tropical forest protection, conservation and restoration.

The key message is that “we know what needs to be done (and) cannot wait until it is too late” …..consequently, “the zero carbon economy is an ultimate necessity and must be seriously explored now.

Nothing new?

Sounds more like a text conceptualized by a radical environmental organisation rather than by twenty of the world’s most renowned scientists. The urgency is nothing new; the milestones (international agreement, energy technology and forests) we find in other recommendation statements (to be discussed in future blogs) that describe these necessary actions in more detail than the present text can provide across its two pages.

But at closer look, the memorandum provides an interesting new twist to the prisoner’s dilemma of global climate change negotiations. “In this spirit of trust, every country must act on the firm assumption that all others will also act.

Past climate change actions and negotiations have not been marked by trust. Quite the opposite: countries have delayed action waiting for others to take the lead, or made commitments conditional upon similar commitments by other countries. As successful action is dependent on all large-scale emitters, progress in the past has partly been stalled by the lack of trust in the international community that others will act in a similar fashion and thus make efforts worthwhile and share the economic burden imposed by the energy transformation (see also Simon Billett’s blog: Poznan Day 11: Ministerial Statements and Game Theory).

From a theoretical perspective, this deadlock can be overcome in three possible ways: communication, e.g. through international conventions and conferences such as the UNFCCC; punishment for inaction which in an international context of sovereign nation states is next to impossible; or repeated games.

Repeated games

From the perspective of the St James Memorandum, “repeated games” in the climate change context implies shifting the focus of climate change negotiations away from fixing individual country targets at a once-off event (Copenhagen) where countries face insecurity about the actions of others. Focus should be placed on setting a common global goal (a peak of global emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2015 and at least a 50% emission reduction by 2050 on a 1990 baseline) whose achievement is the responsibility of all countries according to their respective abilities; compliance will be triggered through repeated events of negotiations. In the words of Schellnhuber, German climate scientist and responsible for the St James Nobel Laureate meeting: “in the worst case scenario we can negotiate every year”.

Copenhagen then is not the one and only game where countries set their commitments suspicious about being cheated by “fellow prisoners” but rather the first in a series of games that make country actions more transparent over time, allow learning and build trust.

The solution?

Sounds somewhat compelling; like a “mean-lean” flexible mechanism to break the deadlock of climate change negotiations. But as always, in reality the problem is a bit more complex. While politicians can build trust and cooperation through regular meetings where partners are able to adapt their behaviour to the behaviour of their counterparts, at the same time, these politicians have to create confidence and a secure investment environment in their countries. Ad hoc negotiations may be more feasible from a political point of view, yet, from a business and economic perspective it is likely to ruin emissions reductions opportunities that require long term planning and investments and therefore long term certainty about regulatory and political decisions. As emissions cannot be reduced by merely pushing a button, flexible negotiation structures may send the wrong signals and  create too much insecurity for the economy to take necessary adjustment measures.

Are there any other ways to resolve a collective action problem? Could a political hegemon pave the way towards a stable international agreement? Germany seemed to take over that role in the climate change debate setting climate change on the top of its G8 summit agenda, yet seems to have withdrawn from its role. The world looks at Obama – but even if the US takes the lead, can that suffice to convince China to move in the same direction?

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