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John Robinson: The biggest conflicts and contradictions in global climate governance

Updated: Jan 6, 2023

John Robinson, Professor of the University of Toronto

John Robinson is a Professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and the School of the Environment at the University of Toronto, Advisor to the President on Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development, adjunct Professor at the Copenhagen Business School, and IRES, Emeritus Professor at the University of British Columbia. He holds a PhD from the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the intersection of climate change mitigation, adaptation and sustainability, using visualization, modeling and civic engagement to explore sustainable futures and sustainable buildings and cities.


The biggest conflicts and contradictions in global climate governance

1. What are the biggest conflicts and contradictions caused by different considerations for different active participants in Global Climate Governance? How can we increase the participation of all parties in global climate governance so that the main considerations of subjects in global climate governance can be heard?


There are a myriad of considerations for different countries, as the language of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (a legal principle articulated initially at the UN Conference in Environment and Development in Rio in 1992) is intended to suggest. The idea is that different states can enter into a collective response, according to both their capacities and their levels of contribution to the problem. Of course there are many debates over how capabilities and responsibilities should be defined and measured, but nevertheless the principle remains, I think, a useful and important one. With regard to the second question, I am not sure if the word “subjects” is intended to mean “topics” or instead to mean “people”. In either case, my own view is that the only way that progress can be made in the international negotiations over climate action is if all or at least most parties believe that they have something to gain from such action. Moral suasion alone, or punitive economic measures, are unlikely to induce the level of agreement and action that is required. And the gains that are identified cannot be only long-term in nature. Developing countries in particular need concrete benefits in the short term from engaging in climate action. One possible answer lies in directing financial flows to investments in sustainable energy systems in such countries, and indeed around the world. If this can be achieved then the benefits of climate action become very tangible.


2. China's leader Xi Jinping attended the leaders' climate summit on April 22 and proposed for the first time to build a "community of life for people and nature".What do you think are China's considerations for this proposal and what is the impact of this proposal?


I am not an expert on China, but I assume that there are several considerations here. First, it is clear that the social contract between the Chinese government and the Chinese people depends to an important degree on China successfully addressing environmental and sustainability issues in that country. Second, it is increasingly clear that such considerations are of growing importance around the world, so if China is to achieve its foreign policy and external economic goals (e.g. Belt and Road and subsequent initiatives along these lines) then it will be very important to have sustainability considerations as prominent components of those initiatives. Third, in the international jockeying for thought leadership between China and the West (especially of course the US) China’s leadership may see a strategic opportunity to take the lead in this area. Finally, and related to the last point, it can be argued that such an approach to human relationships with the natural world is very consistent with Chinese history and traditions, so such leadership would be natural for China. However, I don’t know enough to know whether that last point is correct.

3. How should countries around the world reconcile economic development and global climate governance, and what do you think are the main dilemmas of global climate governance at present?


There are many schools of thought on this. Two prominent ones are opposed to each other: (i) that we will only achieve effective climate governance if it can be built into a green growth agenda, and (ii) that we will only achieve effective climate governance if we change our economic goals and adopt a degrowth approach. In practice, since almost no politicians around the world today would come out publicly in favour of reduced, let alone negative, economic growth, I believe that the first of these approaches will be pursued, at least in the near future. However I think that the limits of such an approach will become increasingly clear (i.e. continued economic growth of a traditional kind is simply unsustainable). In parallel, and crucially, I believe that the opportunities associated with rethinking our dominant economic paradigms in more egalitarian, collectivist and social democratic ways may become more evident (the big shifts in investment patterns and global finance that we are seeing now may be a harbinger of such changes). If that is the case then we may begin to see the emergence of social and political goals that are not based primarily on growth in physical output, but more oriented toward quality of life considerations


4. What are the major climate risks for the national economy?Could you elaborate your analysis based on a specific country?


This is a bit outside my area of expertise. In general terms, there are two sets of risks: the risks associated with climate change itself (i.e. expected climate change impacts), and the risks associated with taking or not taking action (e.g. risk of energy systems transformations; or risks of losing out on the opportunity to benefit from climate change action as the world transitions to sustainable energy systems). The first are mostly biophysical in nature (storms, global warming, sea level rise, etc.) but with large economic, social and geopolitical consequences; the second are primarily technological, economic and political. Opponents of climate action are generally focussed mostly on the risks of taking action, and tend to downplay the risks of climate change itself, but also to ignore the risks of not taking action. I expect these latter risks to become more visible and more important over the next few years, so it will become more risky not to engage in climate action than to engage in it.


Interviewer: Xu Yiding

Interview date: June 9, 2021

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