Commentary

Consequences of inaction for the global rules-based regime

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We may not recognise their significance in our day-to-day lives, but global rules underpin the stability that safeguards our collective co-existence in the world. Failure to agree an ambitious and binding climate regime in Paris will undermine current and future attempts to curb emissions and could signal the final nail in the coffin for political leadership in managing global challenges.

What does an international rules-based system do for you?

For starters it allows us to participate, and co-exist with, a diversity of cultures. Global rules protect sites of heritage and beauty [1]; enable the sharing of culture, from films to music, literature to artwork, across the world[2]; and open the door to travel and adventure[3].

Beyond such luxuries, global rules provide the safety net that ensures our stability and promotes fairness. They are the basis of our civilisation. Enshrined in values of freedom and democracy, rules protect people – especially the most vulnerable – from harm and limit the role of ‘great powers’. In times of crisis these rules form the architecture for collaboration and enable countries to come together to resolve global challenges.

What would the world look like without a rules-based system?

Global rules are far from perfect but they certainly have their benefits. Without them, our lives would be very different.

A world without a rules-based system would be incapable of managing the global resources that we rely upon daily. Those with privileged access to resources would prosper but at the cost of those without power and influence, the most vulnerable. The people of resource-poor nations and regions, such as the Small Island States, China, India, many parts of Africa and even the European Union would be subject to the whims of resource rich countries. That’s fine when resource rich countries like Canada and Australia are our allies, but when events turn sour, as in the case of Ukraine, we are reminded of the strategic importance of global rules to reduce volatile behaviour.

Similarly, resource rich nations may have access to some valuable necessities, but without collaboration with other countries may lack other essentials: gold cannot itself feed a family. Beyond borders, global rules are also fundamental in managing the global commons. Resources such as water and the atmosphere do not fit into human-defined boundaries: without agreements and rules that cross political divisions, these resources will be used to the benefit of few and to the detriment of many.

Why is failure in Paris synonymous with failure of the rules-based regime?

To succeed in Paris in 2015, the climate agreement will be subject to three tests. It will need to build trust among countries that obligations will be fulfilled; to demonstrate to investors and business that rapid decarbonisation is inevitable; and to put in place the structures to effectively manage climate risk. If the agreement passes these three tests, it won’t be the grand finale, where we can pack up and go home, but it will have established the beginning of the solution.

On the other hand, failure to meet these three tests would expose governments as incapable of managing global challenges. It has been written many times that climate change is the challenge of our generation, and that if the global community cannot rise to the challenge it will sound the death toll of global rules. Trust among governments is key to establishing rules that go beyond sovereignty in the pursuit of collective and multiple, benefits. If trust is not built in Paris, the effects will echo throughout international institutions.

Likewise, a good degree of certainty of profit is a pre-requisite for investment in energy and infrastructure. Government actions play a considerable role in de-risking investment opportunities, resulting in a higher likelihood of good returns. And governments acting in synchronicity can accelerate investments dramatically, for example after Kyoto patents in green energy increased by 20%, compared to an average of 5% in other fields[4]. Accordingly, if global rules cease to function investors lose their much-needed certainty resulting in investment paralysis.

What are the climate consequences of failure in Paris?

Inability to manage climate impacts

The breach of the 2 degree obligation opens the door to tipping points that may result in an unmanageable future. The changing climate will threaten the resource nexus at the heart of our communities – our access to land, energy, food, water and minerals. In the absence of a bold Paris agreement, when climate impacts intensify there will be no mechanism to protect the vulnerable – and by this we don’t just mean the smallest or the poorest, but also the fragile middle-classes. Conflict and volatility are likely to reign.

Disempowered low carbon practitioners

The real economy is where greenhouse gas emissions are created or avoided. But no single actor can manage climate change on their own: it requires multilateral action to transition all economies. Failure in Paris will dampen and slow action taken by investors, parliamentarians and cities to curb emissions and implement the low carbon economy.

As noted above, investors will lose confidence resulting in paralysing investment in low carbon industries and infrastructure. Parliamentarians without the mandate to do so will not establish the necessary national legislation for implementing the low carbon transition. Actions by cities will remain inconsistent and fragmented, with some continuing to take the initiative and others concentrating on other priorities. As impacts begin to escalate in cities at the front line of climate change, their executive powers may allow them to adapt, but without a comprehensive approach coordinated with national and international governments their efforts will not be able to mitigate against all climate impacts.

Rollback of international support

International institutions play an essential role in responding to crises and managing periods of transition. These institutions smooth the journey through uncertainty, aiming to protect the vulnerable and resource-poor. Without the mandate from governments to act on climate change, support for mitigation, adaptation and crisis response will dwindle. Without international institutions and with rising climate impacts, resources will become scarce and inequality increase, leading to many more slipping into poverty.

Global rules allow us to enjoy stability and to plan and hope for the future. Although often characterised as impersonal and technocratic, these rules are deeply human. Inaction risks their survival.

References

[1] UNESCO – http://en.unesco.org/

[2] WIPO – http://www.wipo.int/portal/en/index.html

[3] For example, the Schengen Agreement http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/borders-and-visas/schengen/index_en.htm

[4] http://www.euractiv.com/innovation-enterprise/patent-chief-kyoto-sparked-clean-interview-498341

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