A tragedy of the atmospheric commons: Kyoto Protocol to Paris Agreement

What sets the commons apart from an open-access resource is a commonly agreed-upon and enforced set of rules and norms for resource use by a well-defined community'. The struggle for community forestry' in Nepal and the struggle for a global climate treaty are both struggles over the commons. Many challenges elude the scaling up of a successful resource commons from local to global context, including how to enforce sanctions for bad behavior and exclude free-riders (Ostrom 2014), yet the need for globally' agreed upon norms

A multi-scalar postcolonial political ecology 189 cannot be denied when we cannot escape being part of a global community where the impacts of climate change driven by some have life- and livelihoodthreatening effects on others who may have played a negligible part in and who do not benefit from the processes that contributed to it. The Kyoto Protocol’s CBDRRC principle was an attempt to establish equitable norms for an otherwise unwieldy and diffuse resource commons. The United States has so far played an unfortunate role of obstructionist and free-rider in the global efforts to curb the climate crisis, since at least as far back as 1992, while simultaneously using its political clout to shape the treaty by inserting the market-based flexibility mechanisms that weakened it. After lobbying to insert a cap-and-trade mechanism in the Kyoto Protocol, the United States infamously refused to ratify it because it was claimed to impart an unfair economic advantage to countries such as India and China that the United States believed should not be given advantages reserved for developing countries. Such US exceptionalism in matters of global environmental responsibility was demonstrated in stark terms in a recent announcement that “Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space . . . and the United States does not view it as a global commons”, announcing a free-for-all race for mineral resources in the moon. Mars, and other celestial bodies (Executive Order 13914 of April 6, 2020, 20381). This kind of blatant disregard for other members of a global community is in large part to blame for the exacerbation of the climate crisis. Global South countries have relentlessly tried to exert pressure on the United States and other Global North countries to accept responsibility and take accountability for their part in exacerbating the climate and other ecological crises. A wide range of environmental treaties exist today as a result of these efforts, and they exist in parallel to numerous international agreements pertaining to world trade. The power dynamics in both sets of negotiations roughly mirror a core-periphery status quo established since European colonialism shaped the current contours of global power. This is why North-South environmental politics in the context of climate treaty negotiations have mirrored the NIEO discourse.

In political ecology and political economy academic circles in the United States, I have encountered a strong tendency to disavow the UN deliberative process to formulate a global climate treaty as an elitist space, and one that has been co-opted and captured by neoliberal capitalism. The Kyoto Protocol was long vilified for being too weak and ineffectual by US activists and academics, and simultaneously by US negotiating teams for being too extreme in its distributive justice intent. The convergence of the two forces — one as key actor in opposing North-South justice claims, and the others complicity — is uncanny and discomfiting to me as an academic based in the Global North. Global South negotiating teams fought to protect the Kyoto Protocol with its institutionalization of the CBDRRC principle but subsequently were not able to. The Copenhagen Accord successfully dismantled the North-South distinctions built into the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreement successfully removed the CBDRRC from being an organizing principle for a globalclimate treaty. Global South actors lost a battle to keep Global North countries accountable for their disproportionate encroachment over the atmospheric commons. What has survived from the transition from the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement is the weak link of carbon trading and offsetting provisions, introduced by the United States, which now continues in the guise of “results-based payments” and “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” (United Nations, Paris Agreement 2015, 6—7). The United States, the erstwhile hegemonic power in the world, the one with the most responsibility and capacity — financial and technological, if not moral — and has done the least to accept its global obligations, has no doubt left an indelible mark on the only space we have for the formulation of rules and norms that govern the fate of the global atmospheric commons.

But power is fluid, not static. Power struggles will continue in the course of defining the parameters of the provisions of the Paris Agreement. I imagine that the CBDRRC principle may yet be revived and strengthened, possibly with a more nuanced depiction of‘differentiated responsibilities’than the Kyoto Protocol’s binary categories, and with more meaningful representation of the global community than at the level of state representatives. Meanwhile the current focus of North/South negotiations appears to be on operationalizing financial resources for ‘losses and damages’ for the inevitable consequences of climate change and on determining the terms of trade for carbon. Even as I agree with critics that carbon trading is an ineffectual way to mitigate greenhouse gases, I maintain that it is ethically problematic to emphatically state: “No REDD+” while providing no alternatives to the financial resource flows that would emanate from such a transaction that forest stewards in Nepal are clearly desirous of. As a result of my research in community forestry, my initial understandings of a commons versus commodities framework have evolved to consider how users of a forest commons may wish to sell forest products as commodities while following the rules and norms of governing the forest commons they have established. It is how they make their livelihood. Respecting the agency and dignity of stewards of an existing forest commons, and compensating them for their valuable contributions to climate mitigation, is important, ideally in the form of an ecological debt, but even in the form of carbon finance. Neoliberal capitalism and the commodification of the atmospheric commons are indeed highly concerning, but communities at various peripheries of the patriarchal-capitalist-colonial world order exert their agencies in different ways — some by taking to the streets in protest, others by negotiating power dynamics vis-à-vis the state through existing institutions that have been earned through populist struggle. A ‘radical versus reformist’ binary lens to evaluate and rank these diverse strategies to deal with neoliberal expansion does not do justice to the multi-faceted struggles on the ground and ignores the importance of complementarity between a ‘war of movement’ and a ‘war of position’ from a Gramscian perspective. Absolute caps on emissions would certainly be a more powerful way to reduce GHGs than cap-and-trade, but since the international community has proven unable so far to come to

A multi-scalar postcolonial political ecology 191 a collective agreement regarding mandatory caps on emissions — nor climate reparations — there needs to be efforts to ensure that the terms of carbon trade are fair at multiple scales, North-South, state-society, and within the community. For this to happen, core-periphery dynamics of international trade must be addressed at the structural level; therefore, there may yet be opportunities for a revitalization of NIEO-esque politics and a counterhegemonic ecological debt agenda within the parameters of the Paris Agreement.

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