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International Climate Agreements from the Bottom Up

How businesses and cities can pave the way

International Climate Agreements from the Bottom Up

How businesses and cities can pave the way

On the same day the presidents of the U.S. and China reached a top-down agreement to curb emissions over the next two decades, James Cameron advocated a bottom-up approach. The British lawyer, entrepreneur and Chairman of Climate Change Capital (not the director) addressed a packed auditorium at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies as a part of CBEY's Sustainable Economy Week. He delivered an articulate, if controversial, vision for the next steps in international climate negotiations.


Mr. Cameron has spent decades optimistically negotiating international climate agreements including the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol. During his talk he said that these kinds of treaties won’t be enough. He thinks it is worthwhile to pursue international agreements. But they’ll need to be supplemented by the commitments of thousands of smaller coalitions that agree to be collectively bound to act.  

 “Law is an ideal – an expression of generalized will,” he reminded us. “In international law, you have a system of making rules that is designed to further the society of all societies (the international community).” National leaders often make grand promises on the international stage. But they never get translated into enforceable legislation. Their promises do not reflect voters’ wills. Instead, Mr. Cameron described a system in which industries, cities and even groups of individuals make their willingness to reduce their carbon emissions known. He imagined groups making statements like these:

“We the mayors believe that we can do this…”

“We the oil companies believe that we can do this…”

“We the banks believe that we can do this…”

The aggregation of these many smaller contributions will provide the foundation upon which countries can make agreements that are actionable. National commitments would then be expressions of residents’ “generalized will.”

As I understand his argument, if groups commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on their own, we’re more likely to achieve a successful international climate agreement in Paris next year. Rather than waiting for sovereign states to push policies upon their citizens, the citizens will have to give their States the power to act on their behalf.

The idea makes sense. It’s already happening around the world ad hoc. Many cities are more progressive when it comes to climate goals than the states and countries they belong to. Many companies are making ambitious commitments to reduce their environmental impact. They are setting examples and inspiring others in their fields to do the same.

Growing this base of leaders will of course help the cause on many fronts, including providing notional power to international climate negotiators. But Mr. Cameron’s discourse raised several questions about how this bottom-up approach will eventually lead to the large scale reductions we need to stop climate change. Who will facilitate negotiations across industries? What would incentivize industries and cities to make large enough commitments to actually add up to enough reductions? How much would each industry or city need to commit to be enough? What if the aggregate of all of the commitments is not enough and consequently the bar for emissions reductions is set too low? How will we negotiate with so many different actors to make further reductions if needed? Who would enforce actually achieving the reductions? What is the process for turning a collection of commitments into law?

Perhaps it is backwards to think that States can hold each other accountable to protect shared resources without buy-in from the politicians and voters who set policy. But at some point there will need to be a jump from groups of actors saying what they “can” do to mitigate climate change to a coordinated effort to say what needs to be done and who should do what. The sooner we can create a plan that addresses these questions, the more prepared we will be for COP 21 in Paris next year. The question then becomes - what can the environment and management students at schools like Yale do to help?