Geography Compass

Climate Change: A Little Further Round the Pragmatic Turn?

Cutting black carbon emissions from diesel exhausts would be one way to both slow global warming and cut air pollution levels.

Martin Mahony

A few weeks back I wrote a post on here which reflected on whether the outcomes of the Doha climate negotiations represented something of a ‘pragmatic turn’ in global climate policy discourse. Drawing on the Hartwell Paper – which advocates a more pragmatic set of immediate climate policy goals – I suggested that the growing interest in the multi-scalar character of climate governance and in potential ‘win-win’ strategies like soot emissions reductions (which would have benefits both for the climate and for human health) might represent an application of some of the principles of a new climate pragmatism.

Events this week suggest that we may be heading a little further round this pragmatic turn. At a conference in London, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres argued that national domestic climate legislation “is critical because it is the linchpin between action on the ground and the international agreement… domestic legislation opens the political space for international agreements and facilitates overall ambition”, as reported in The Guardian.

This marks something of an inversion of the logic which has dominated much of the history of climate governance, i.e. that national laws should be implemented under a framework of international, legally-binding agreements. For Figueres, effective national policies are now a precursor to achieving the long-desired comprehensive legal framework to tie countries together in their efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

This news was followed by reports that a group of scientists studying the aggregate effects of soot or ‘black carbon’ emissions on the climate had made some rather surprising calculations. The scientists – who spent four years compiling observations and data from around the world – suggested that the contribution of black carbon to global warming may be twice that of previous estimates. This would place black carbon second in the list of climate-warming emissions, after carbon dioxide.

For the climate pragmatists, black carbon emissions represent something of a low hanging fruit – a problem whose solution would be politically much more straightforward than the decarbonisation of the world’s energy supply. These new findings suggest that the fruit may be a little sweeter (and twice as plump) than first thought, and the renewed emphasis on multi-scalar governance may make it a little easier to reach.

However, as Bailey and Compston argued in 2010, “trajectories of climate governance are shaped by struggle and negotiations between competing sets of interests operating within and across territorial scales.. Despite the customary framing of climate change as a global problem requiring global solutions, climate governance can never be disentangled from these processes, just as international and national political strategies cannot simply be rolled out to the sub-national and local levels or between political jurisdictions. Some sources of resistance are embedded in localities and spatial scales. Others, especially those allied to corporate interests, transcend conventional spatial boundaries.”

The potential new trajectories currently emerging will not be smooth and easy paths, and the re-scaling of political efforts and the re-prioritising of specific issues will mean that new sources of resistance will be inevitably be encountered. The key premise of climate pragmatism however is that these resistances need not paralyze entire political projects, such as the search for an all-encompassing global climate agreement. Thus the confluence of a spatially sensitive approach to climate governance and a pragmatic turn in the ordering of policy goals may mean that climate-friendly and socially just policies are just around the corner.

globe42 Domestic climate laws are essential, says UNThe Guardian

globe42 Black carbon is worse for global warming than previously thoughtThe Guardian

books_icon Ian Bailey and Hugh Compston, 2010, Geography and the Politics of Climate PolicyGeography Compass 1097-1114

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