The carrot and stick approach to climate change agreement

The chances of the forthcoming UN Climate Change Conference actually reaching a workable global agreement to reduce greenhouse emissions sufficiently to make a major impact on warming are remote.

In an article at Online Opinion, three academics from the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria in Canada succinctly explain the main reason for the likely ongoing impasse and canvass a possible solution.  Heap, Carin and Smith put the reason for the problem like this:

The nub of the problem is easy enough to state. Developing countries are totally unwilling to accept greenhouse gas caps unless developed countries pay for the impact this would have. The southern view is that developed countries caused the problem in the first place, and they must pay for solving it. Developing countries refuse to cripple their own economic development and thereby hamstring their efforts to reduce grinding poverty simply to pull developed countries irons out of the fire.

At the same time, if developed countries are to act to meet the conditions laid down by developing countries for participating in a climate change deal, significant impacts will be felt in Western economies which remain fragile in the wake of the recent financial crisis. Lifestyle changes would need to be contemplated at a time when western electorates feel especially vulnerable. And even if developed country leaders make major concessions, the level of mutual distrust is such that developing country leaders will be hard-pressed for domestic political reasons of their own to come on board.

In fact the developing countries’ position doesn’t stand up to critical analysis, as my Troppo colleague Nicholas Gruen has pointed out before.  Developing countries already profit enormously from the industry and application of the developed West, because they can “piggyback” on the technological innovations it took centuries to invent and perfect, and sell their products and services into prosperous developed international markets that would not otherwise exist.  It’s for these reasons that countries like China and India are managing to pursue explosive economic growth trajectories rather than taking hundreds of years as the West did.  It isn’t unreasonable for the developed nations to insist that the developing world pulls its weight in reducing greenhouse emissions.

However, the logic of the argument is almost irrelevant in geopolitical terms.   What’s needed is a practical path through the impasse.  Heap, Carin and Smith suggest that the G20 might have a better chance of finding a workable solution than the UN Copenhagen gabfest.  They might be right.  Twenty nations probably stand a better chance of negotiating a set of trade-offs they can all live with than the 192 nations at Copenhagen.  However, the G20 includes the largest of the intransigent developing nations with most to gain by refusing to come to the party unless the West pays the entire price of their compliance, and so the extreme divergence of interests represented there may also make agreement too difficult.

Maybe the G8 would be a better bet for this purpose.  It consists solely of developed nations who are likely to find it much easier to achieve common ground than the G20.  The G8 would certainly need to offer substantial subsidies and incentives to get the developing countries onboard (even kicking and screaming).  That could/should include supplying nuclear power technology and fuel at attractive prices and on conditions that will avoid the danger of weapons proliferation and unsafe waste disposal.  Australia, for instance, could supply nuclear fuel in a package deal including storing the resulting waste at a secure site in the central Australian desert.

However, they’ll also almost certainly need to include large and credible threats in the package as well i.e. major trade sanctions against developing countries which refuse to sign on to any greenhouse reduction deal brokered by the G8.  That would require the developed nations to insist on amendments to WTO agreements which in their present form almost certainly would not permit sanctions for such reasons.  The developed nations certainly have the international clout to insist on adaptation of WTO agreements, or for that matter a unified stance in simply flouting them if necessary.   Large powerful nations like the US frequently flout or subvert the WTO regime in any event for purely self-interested reasons,  so a unified G8 approach on such a globally vital issue is hardly an outrageous position to take.

In any event,  developed world sanctions and boycotts of developing nations which refuse to sign on to a fair and workable anti-greenhouse regime would certainly be effective.  It’s not difficult to foresee the howls of outrage from the international Socialist Left (evil capitalist imperialist hegemoic warmongers etc) and the Greenies, but they must be ignored.  Extreme Greens are the among the most dangerous enemies of a sustainable world environment!

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Pedro X
Pedro X
12 years ago

China’s emissions are growing at 6-7% per year. They are already the world’s largest emitters. Sanctions against China would be suicide for the US. The US itself may well not sign up to targets. The Democrats have just lost New Jersey. Blue Dog Democrats are going to be very wary of passing anything now that might lose them their seats.

It will be interesting to see if any strong Global Climate deals pass, let alone ones with sanctions.

12 years ago

Ironically, the strongest proponent of such sanctions (or tariffs, as the case happens to be) is the rather socialistic France.

12 years ago

Patrick, nothing ironic about it.

France is acting primarily out of self interest: they have one of the largest nuclear power industries in the world, a substantial hydro-electric power industry, and they are keen to be a major supplier of both hydro and nuclear technology to other countries. Quite likely their socialistic system is what gives them the capability to run a lot of nuclear reactors, whereas in other countries you would get NIMBY resistance happening.

12 years ago

I only meant ironic in the context of KP’s last paragraph. Of course it is exactly what you would expect.

As for the reactors, I think it is something to do with coal being mainly in Germany and Britain. Also, the reactors were almost all set up in the 50-early 60s – there is substantial resistance to them today.

12 years ago

“Developing countries already profit enormously from the industry and application of the developed West, because they can piggyback on the technological innovations it took centuries to invent and perfect”
I don’t know what round-eyed version of history you’ve been reading, but some places that arn’t “the West” weren’t such comparatively backwards places in the last say, thousand years (your “centuries”), and some places in “the West” wern’t such advanced places either (like the US and Australia, for example). No doubt with that sort of comment, you probably go around telling your friends how smart white people like Gutenberg were for being the first to invent the printing press, and probably that white people invented paper too.
“and sell their products and services into prosperous developed international markets that would not otherwise exist.
An alternative view of this is that if they bothered to develop their own internal marks instead, they’d be better off. No doubt when China does this and gives up buying US magic paper, people will complain about that too.

Tony Harris
Tony Harris(@tony-harris)
12 years ago

On the topic of storing nuclear waste in outback Australia, is there any rational argument against this potentially very lucrative business, or just nimbyism gone mad?

Quite likely nuclear power is the best long-term hope for the world and Australia could make megabacks by storing the worlds waste.

Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
12 years ago


1) I don’t think carbon tariffs are contra WTO, but I’m not sure.
2) It’s ridiculous to say that the west couldn’t deliver major carbon emissions reductions without sacrificing lifestyle. Double energy prices – like we doubled fuel prices in the wake of the Iraq war – and do it again and you’d go a long way to dealing with the issues. If that’s done with a tax it wouldn’t cost you more than a year or two’s growth in the next twenty. Leaving 18 out of 20 years with normal growth. It’s basically a doddle. But it’s hard with Oppositions stoking the resentment of the populace.