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We can’t wait for unanimity on climate action

Sensemaking / We can’t wait for unanimity on climate action

Pascal Lamy, Chair of the Commission for Future Generations, makes the case for creative coalitions across states, cities and business.

By Futures Centre / 19 Nov 2013

The problems surrounding the UN Climate Change Conference in Warsaw are a gloomy reminder of the backward steps the world seems to be taking on this critical challenge. Australia decided not to send a minister to the talks, the Polish government organised a coal summit to coincide with the main event and Christina Figueres, the UN climate change chief, declared that carbon budgets – as proposed by the IPCC report – are too politically ‘difficult’ to be part of the negotiations.

A lack of action on emissions and other critical issues – such as threats to biodiversity, the increasing burden of chronic disease and our collective failure to address poverty – prompted the Oxford Martin School, at the University of Oxford, to establish the Commission for Future Generations, which I was pleased to chair. This is a group of 19 leaders from diverse political and geographical backgrounds, including leading academics such as Professor Amartya Sen and Professor Kishore Mahbubani; government ministers such as Trevor Manuel from South Africa and Nandan Nilekani from India; and leaders from global organisations such as Jean-Claude Trichet, former President of the European Central Bank and Michele Bachele, former Executive Director of UN Women. They share a deep concern about the gridlock that stalls too many processes and negotiations that are supposed to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

Our recent report, ‘Now for the Long Term’, sets out a number of recommendations for change. We do not have time to wait for unanimously agreed reform through complex global governance architecture in order to tackle the greatest challenges, such as climate change. In order to move things forward, we recommend that those countries willing to advance action form a creative coalition not just with other states, but with cities and businesses.

We recommend a coalition to accelerate action on climate change, with measurable targets for initiatives that include energy-efficient buildings, faster market penetration of efficient vehicles, and tracking emissions. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Forum for the Future, and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group would be good networks for such a coalition, potentially alongside the G20.

We also recommend action at city level to address important health issues. An action-focused global network centred on cities could be created that would be dedicated to fighting the rise of non-communicable diseases. The ‘Fit Cities’ Network could bring food, beverage, and alcohol producers to the table in collaboration with public health authorities, the UN Task Force, and the civil society coalition, The NCD Alliance. In addition to encouraging the enforcement of health promotion regulation, Fit Cities could focus on the availability of healthy food, quality of health education, and effective mechanisms to enhance healthy lifestyles.

Coalitions of people in business matter because they allow for a more entrepreneurial way of approaching the biggest challenges. While many publicly funded international institutions have spearheaded breakthroughs and created a lasting impact in a wide range of areas, some of the most significant campaigns to tackle seemingly intractable problems have stemmed from more innovative partnerships between business and civil society.

Beyond creative coalitions, we also call for credible incentives for, and investment in, cleaner energy infrastructure for poor and developing countries. The Green Climate Fund, established in 2010 and aimed at helping developing countries transition to low emission and climate resilient economic development, promises much on this, but fundraising has been slow and the operational system needs to be scaled up. The creation of a “Manhattan project” on new energy and support of a step up in modeling would add greatly to understanding the uncertain and uneven dynamics and consequences of climate change.

Finally, the UNFCCC itself still needs reform. A few countries are holding up vital progress for all. Technical expertise and smaller group meetings to advance negotiations must be prioritized. The unbundling of different dimensions of the agreement, to reduce complexity and allow progress on certain tracks may be helpful.

In the meantime, mechanisms like C20-C30-C40 and Fit Cities, which encourage investment in like-minded coalitions to prompt change, learning and practical action on the challenges that will shape our future, will be critical.  

Pascal Lamy is Chair, Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, and former Director-General of the World Trade Organization. Now for the Long Term is available from

Photo credit: Oxford Martin School

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