I recently attended an event hosted by the African Climate and Development Initiative (University of Cape Town), reporting back on December’s Paris COP. An eminent local panel spoke of the significant shift which the Paris agreement embodied: after attempting for decades to achieve a deal based on ‘targets and timeframes’ under the UNFCCC, the Paris agreement is based on a ‘pledge and review’ system.
What is the difference? Setting targets and timeframes for climate change mitigation is a top-down exercise. A global emissions limit is agreed and apportioned to individual countries, together with timeframes for achieving this. A pledge and review system is primarily bottom-up. Countries identify what they think they can achieve in the form of a pledge, and these pledges are periodically reviewed against what is possible and fair at the country level, and globally against environmental adequacy.
There was a sense that the panel members found the move to a ‘pledge and review’ world sub-optimal and disappointing, if not downright disastrous for the planet. The primarily rationale for this view is that there is no centralised control over total global emissions. One speaker recalled how Japan suggested a pledge and review approach 1991, only to be rejected out of hand because the idea appeared so clearly inadequate to the problem.
But a view from complexity thinking suggests that there might be something different happening here. In 1991 the world was still dominated by the twentieth century belief that humans are in control. From this worldview it is no wonder that pledge and review appears sub-optimal. But in 2016 we’ve largely conceded control as a mirage.
The world, and the challenge of climate mitigation in particular, is a complex systemic problem. A complex system is not centrally controlled, and the complexity policy literature suggests that top down targets and timeframes are therefore not particularly effective as policy responses.
So instead of ‘disastrously’ conceding to political reality, are we not perhaps finally adopting a policy paradigm that provides a better fit with the problem? This does not mean that it is automatically an adequate approach, just that it might a better one. As the panelists noted, the work has just begun. And as complexity thinking emphasises, it requires collective responsibility. It is up to cities, communities and citizens to ensure adequacy.