Aubrey Meyer was a South-African born musician and composer. He became involved in environmental activism while researching the topic for a musical, and eventually left his musical career to found the Global Commons Institute (GCI). His particular focus was on the strategic guiding principles behind the IPCC process, negotiating a compromise between the NGOs and their calls for justice, and the economists and politicians trying to maintain the status quo. The middle ground the Institute pioneered is called ‘Contraction and Convergence.’
The prevailing notion at the start of the UN climate change debates was that all countries should cut their emissions by the same percentage. This was very unfair – imagine insisting that Ethiopia or Cambodia should cut their emissions by 60% as well as the US and the EU. Some countries need to grow, and to forcibly halt development in destitute countries would be unacceptable.
Worse yet, some negotiators were using cost-benefit analysis to work out whether it was better for the economy to ignore climate change and let nature take its course. Since the developed world economies would not suffer as badly as the poorer countries, there was a case for doing nothing, even though millions of people would die or lose their homes. Meyer, being South African, saw an immediate parallel here. “The attitudes held by rich people and powerful institutions to the world’s poor were just like those of apartheid” he writes. “Essentially the rich had a policy of separate development for the poor who, in extremis, were expendable.”
Instead, the GCI worked out a method based on a very simple idea. “Since the world’s atmosphere belongs equally to everyone if it belongs to anyone at all, the only basis on which such an agreement seems possible is that there must – eventually at least – be an equal allocation to everyone in the world.”
Our global economy currently functions on ‘expansion and divergence’. We have a growth model of capitalism that is creating a ever-increasing gap between rich and poor. In a nutshell, the Contraction and Convergence model is the opposite, based on the idea that “the right to emit carbon dioxide is a human right and should be allocated on an equal basis to all of humankind”. This is how the C+C model would work:
- Identify the maximum atmospherical CO2 concentration to prevent severe climate change. That’s the total emissions that can be allowed worldwide.
- Divide that total by the world population. That gives you an equal share of emissions for every person.
- Multiply that personal share by the population of each country, so you get an emissions allocation for every country. So China would be receive 1,329,740,000 carbon shares for example, while Monaco would get 32,719.
- All countries would work towards their allocation by an agreed date. Poor countries could grow, while developed countries would ‘contract’, shrinking their energy use.
- Since many countries would be using more than their allocation at the start, while poorer countries would have shares to spare, rich countries would have to buy emissions rights from the poor. This would create a flow of income to developing countries.
- In time, countries would ‘converge’ at a sustainable level of emissions, and energy use would be equitable.
Here it is in a graph. Emissions would be allowed to grow in some parts of the world while they fell in more developed countries. The end result, by 2100 in this graph (but 203o or 2050 in others), is a flat and stable level of emissions where each country has a proportional share.
As an idea, Contraction and Convergence is simple and compelling, and it’s no surprise that it did eventually became an over-arching principle of the global climate talks.
As a book, it’s not nearly so engaging. This short book is more about the story of Contraction and Convergence as an idea than an explanation of it. Meyer seems to assume that if you’re reading the book, you already know what Contraction and Convergence is, and so rather than describe and sell his idea, there are timelines of negotiations and meetings, details of resolutions, amendments, articles, and obscure QUANGOs. On one level its interesting to see the political machinations behind the Kyoto protocol, but a book about diplomatic processes doesn’t really do justice to the idea somehow.
Of course, the next chapter in the C+C story remains unwritten, since the Kyoto agreement left out the developing countries, and the US didn’t participate. The real legacy of Aubrey Meyer’s brainchild will be decided in the forthcoming Copenhagen round of talks.