So it ended, as have most of the recent UN conferences on climate change, with a statement of platitudes and good intentions but nothing in the way of firm commitments to action. George Monbiot called the conference text 283 paragraphs of fluff, The Economist called the outcome “a limp agreement” and “a poor result for a summit billed by some as a “once in a generation” chance to save the planet from its intolerable burden.” Despite warnings of ecological tipping points looming, and the world’s top scientific organisations urging action on population and consumption, the leaders of the world (or at least, the ones who could be bothered to turn up) managed only to boot the ball downfield about as effectively as an English footballer in a penalty shoot out. It was all just too difficult. So they left it for another day — perhaps another generation — to sort out.
It’s easy to point the finger of blame. The United Nations is ineffectual at best1, hamstrung because it can only go as fast as a consensus of its member nations will allow — and the perverse interaction of perceived national interests with multinational corporate desires means that no-one is going anywhere fast.
So where do we go from here? It’s tempting to answer “to hell, in a hand basket”, and get on with planting the vegetable garden2. Personal, familial and local sustainability are achievable without needing the permission of the United States government, Hu Jintao or Charles and David Koch. We can all build our little local lifeboats. We can also aspire to building a national lifeboat. We can work from the bottom up, instead of from the top down. If politicians and diplomats can’t do what’s needed, then we can do it ourselves — and in the process ditch the politicians who won’t and elect ones who will.
But is “bottom up” action enough to get us out of trouble? There are encouraging signs that it might be. Earlier today, as I was mulling over my reaction to the Rio failure, my attention was drawn to a new paper in Nature Climate Change titled Bridging the greenhouse-gas emissions gap by Kornelis Blok, Niklas Höhne, Kees van der Leun and Nicholas Harrison. The authors propose 21 “wedges” — actions which may in themselves be small, but can be done because they are directly beneficial without reference to emissions, and which will when taken together give us a chance to bridge the gap between current national and international commitments on emissions reductions and the emissions levels required to enable to the world to stay within two degrees of warming. Rather charmingly, they call their approach “wedging the gap”.
Action by an individual citizen, a municipality or even a large multinational company may be considered ‘a drop in the ocean’. Even individual actions by large companies or big cities will rarely have an impact of more than a few megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. However, being part of a larger coalition that has the potential to completely bridge the entire emissions gap will make it much more attractive to participate in and take action. To this end, it is necessary that globally leading organizations in the world of business, governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) participate. They need to be part of a coalition that together provides leadership in bridging the gap. Therefore, the key to the success of the wedging-the-gap approach is forming and sustaining this coalition.
Emission-reduction pledges of countries under the UNFCCC and ‘bottom up’ initiatives by players other than national governments reinforce each other. Both have the objective to eventually bridge the emissions gap, but from two different angles. Ultimately, the objective is to close this gap, and both sides are essential.
In other words, we need both bottom up and top down approaches to climate and sustainability. And if we set about preparing the individual foundations well, then we may just create an environment that enables the people working on the top floor to focus on what’s needed, and not on what their paymasters want.