books climate change human rights politics

Contraction and Convergence, by Aubrey Meyer

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:

  1. Identify the maximum atmospherical CO2 concentration to prevent severe climate change. That’s the total emissions that can be allowed worldwide.
  2. Divide that total by the world population. That gives you an equal share of emissions for every person.
  3. 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.
  4. All countries would work towards their allocation by an agreed date. Poor countries could grow, while developed countries would ‘contract’, shrinking their energy use.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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  1. Aubrey Mayer WAS….????

    Surely he’s still with us – i thought he was due to speak somewhere shortly, and as far as I know he still plays violin very well. Spoke with him at a climate conference 2 or 3 years ago and he looked fit.

    Good to see a summary of C & C here.

    Think your postings on twitter are great.

  2. Don’t you think that this idea will lead to genocide? Under this scheme, the only logical way for a nation to increase its power will be to kill its competitors for CO2 allowances. Furthermore, how will you possibly ensure that Census information is truly accurate and not inflated? Who will provide governance and how will you ensure that it will be done ethically? Ultimately, what you are asking for in this proposal is the dissolution of nations and the creation of a single government for the entire planet. I’m not sure you will find much support for that idea.

    1. If a country was so brutal as to consider genocide to increase its power, why on earth would it sign up to a global agreement to cut its CO2 emissions? That’s one crazy straw man you’ve set up there.

      This plan couldn’t possibly be rolled out in any coercive manner. As you say, who would oversee it? It can only work through cooperation, which is what the UN is all about. No international government required, just a willingness to work together.

  3. Also – the scheme is over-simplified and patently unfair. How can you possibly think that people living in cold climates should be forced to be limited to the same CO2 emission levels as those not requiring heating in the winter months. Will this scheme forcibly provide land for those people that choose to relocated to places where there is more “discretionary” CO2 emission possible? All in all, this seems like an idea that deserves to be sent to the dustbin of history.

    1. And no, because there are zero-carbon ways of heating your home. Ask the Scandinavians, who are pushing forward with solid fuel heating and sustainable forestry.

      And as I say, there is no ‘forcibly’ involved. Contraction and convergence is a principle, not a mechanism of global government.

      I sense a degree of fear in your objections. Let me guess – you live in one of the countries that would need to contract?

  4. Okay – so if there’s no global governance, then what is the incentive for a nation to follow the contraction and convergence model?

    1. The same as it is for any kind of global cooperation – do you, or do you not want to play a role in global affairs? Do you want to trade, to participate in sports and cultural events, to sign treaties? Or do you want to be frozen out, like North Korea?

  5. Okay – so if it will be purely voluntary and will be subscribed to in order to play a role in global affairs, then according to Game Theory, the most likely position that competing nations will stake out will be the same one we’ve seen happen with the Kyoto and Copenhagen agreements: Declare support, while not actually doing anything to comply, while hoping at the same time that your economic/cultural/political competitors ARE complying, thus increasing your global reach and advantage at their expense. Smiling and being agreeable all the time, of course…

  6. Yes – C&C is a principle and there is support for it: –

    There is also support for the notion that this principle should guide the negotiations at the UNFCCC. This support is there as many see C&C as the only way to resolve the deadlock created by the various much more extreme positions either side of C&C: –

    As things stand [15 06 2011] no global climate deal is anticipated at COP-17 in December, to continue or replace the Kyoto Protocol that expires at the end of this year. Consequently, we appear to be going over an ‘event-horizon’ the other side of which is the inexorable ‘pull’ of dangerous rates of climate change.

    1. I wonder if a small gesture to get the contraction and convergence started might be to get a global agreement to reduce speed limits to 80km thereby reducing fuel consumption and at the same time making people aware of their part in carbon emissions.I think it would be a gentle way of getting people on board if the positive gains are highlighted.
      1) cheaper insurance
      2) less fatalities on the roads
      3) painless reduction of emissions
      4) less money spent on fuel
      5) more disposable income
      It is something that could be implemented almost overnight and with tangible results. Insurance reductions could be given to those fitting speed limiters to their cars.
      All this would have the effect of reducing road miles travelled as their is evidence that people are only prepared to spend on average 351hours per year travelling on the road.

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