Implementing CapGlobalCarbon

How would CapGlobalCarbon relate to nation-state governments?

Clearly, the cooperation of nation-state governments (by requiring all imports or production of fossil fuels within their jurisdictions to be covered by a permit issued by the Trust) is crucial and is likely to be the most difficult element of these proposals to achieve. The big question is how to obtain their participation. Answering that question will be a key task for the CapGlobalCarbon project. Here are some relevant considerations:

  • Inviting a nation-state government to cooperate will not be to question its authority; on the contrary, it will be inviting it to exercise its authority.
  • What the Trust has to offer should appeal to governments across the ideological spectrum. The revenue from permit sales, when distributed, could provide a significant bolster to existing social welfare programmes, decreasing poverty. This would also pressure hesitant governments to join as the large majority of the population would benefit financially.
  • Inviting a nation-state government to cooperate will complement and not be inconsistent with all that the government is already doing about climate change, whether of its own accord or through the UNFCCC.
  • Only a global cap and licence scheme can be certain of achieving the reductions necessary to avert climate change causing massive damage much of the cost of which would fall on governments.
  • CapGlobalCarbon would be by far the easiest way for all governments to do their bit towards meeting the global goal of climate mitigation, the goal governments committed themselves to in 1992.

The action required of each government is very simple. The Trust would simply request cooperation. However it would be open to the Trust to decide that the right for the population of each country to receive its per capita share of the net proceeds of the auction sale be made conditional on that country’s government agreeing to support the scheme within its jurisdiction. This would make the scheme attractive to the vast majority of countries. 

Whilst therefore the participation of nation-state governments will be crucial, it may be less difficult to achieve than might be feared. Some countries, for example the ten former country members of UNEP’s Climate Neutral Network and countries that took part in the Cochabamba Conference in 2010, may well welcome the scheme from the outset.

The need to achieve the cooperation of nation state governments will provide an opportunity for climate activists and other supporters of CapGlobalCarbon in all countries to put pressure on their own governments to agree to enforce the permit system within their respective jurisdictions. The possibility of forming ‘climate partnerships’ (see below) with other countries could be emphasised, as this would speed the whole process along while helping to ensure that it respects climate justice.

As pointed out below, the permit system would enable judges to make court orders against governments, requiring them to enforce the licence scheme within their borders.

Readers may well be thinking: the probability is that many powerful governments will decide not to cooperate. How would the Trust deal with that situation? At this stage, these points can be made:

  • The Trust’s scheme will only be effective to ensure that the necessary global reductions are achieved if in fact all nation-state governments enforce it within their borders.
  • But there is no need for the Trust to win the cooperation of all governments before launching a scheme.
  • Global South and Global North countries can form ‘climate partnerships’ in order to jointly begin phasing out their fossil fuel use and thus prepare the ground for scaling up to a global CapGlobalCarbon system. In addition to systematically reducing the emissions of the countries involved, this would provide a rigorous framework for the wealthier nations to subsidise the energy transitions of the poorer ones and contribute directly to global climate justice. An outline of how such a partnership might work, with Ireland as an example, is here. Blocs of countries, such as the EU, could equally well – and still more effectively – enter into partnerships with other blocs of countries, for example by modifying and expanding the European ETS

It is one of the attractions of CapGlobalCarbon that it does what the current system, because of its design flaws, fails to do, namely become a global regulator. It can be set up at once so as to be easily scalable, and it can look for support as such.

The social justice element of CapGlobalCarbon

CapGlobalCarbon has a strong social justice component, appealing to the increasing number of people worldwide who are being forced to deal on a daily basis with the effects of climate disruption – in the full knowledge that those who are largely responsible for it are not being held to account – but also to those who are facing severe short-term financial strains and for whom, therefore, action to prevent climate disruption may not seem like an immediate priority.

The auction of the global licences to bring fossil fuels onto the market anywhere in the world would be likely to produce substantial sums to distribute to or for the benefit of everyone in the world in equal shares per capita. It is clear that it would substantially reduce both inequality and poverty. A suitably designed distribution programme could also reduce gender discriminationThis prospect should attract support for CapGlobalCarbon from thousands of NGOs and communities around the world and their direct participation in establishing and organising the work of the Climate Commons Trust.

It is not often that responses to climate change are seen as having an immediate positive potential. CapGlobalCarbon can be presented as such.

Would CapGlobalCarbon be attractive to Business?

Perhaps surprisingly, it could well be.

It is important to remember that the project outlined here has the goal of achieving the radical global reductions of carbon emissions required to avoid calamitous climate change. That is for the benefit of everyone.

The fossil fuel sector of the economy will clearly be radically affected by any type of meaningful action on climate change: climate science indicates that fossil fuel producers will need to completely phase out their production. CGC will provide a stable, predictable framework to enable any fossil fuel company which is willing to accept climate reality to plan its transition towards other economic activities as smoothly as possible.

At present, however, many of these companies are engaging in dangerously irresponsible behaviour, using  delaying tactics and other manoeuvres to try and prevent the energy transition, and this needs to be recognised and addressed.

CapGlobalCarbon could be a form of injunctive relief, ordered by a court in circumstances where a fossil fuel company is found to be violating the law. This will clear the ground for other businesses to able to move forward constructively.  (This idea is explored further below)

All other governmental responsibilities in relation to climate change would remain untouched under CGC, for example policies to promote energy saving and the production of renewables and policies relating to land use.

Certain other issues need to be addressed by governments in order to make CapGlobalCarbon work. Due to the conflict between a global scheme limiting the amount of fossil fuels available and the financial sectors’s current dependency on sustained GDP growth, governments would have to take additional actions in that sector  to prevent the drastic reductions in the supply of fossil fuels likely to be required from causing triggering an economic collapse.

However, business leaders with a clear vision and understanding of the environmental crisis should not only be willing to support CapGlobalCarbon, but also to support the other relevant government actions.  A well-managed zero-carbon economy could actually improve overall societal wellbeing and thus make running a business far more rewarding. 

The possibility of supportive legal actions

As mentioned above, court actions may have an important role in bringing pressure to bear on the fossil fuel industry and governments, especially when combined with CapGlobalCarbon. Given the inadequate performance of the political process, legal experts are looking at ways in which litigation might be a way “to overcome the deadlocked positions right now”. The law may now be the only branch of governance capable of standing up to and having authority over the fossil fuel industry. There are some parallels with asbestos litigation and suits against the tobacco industry.

Those who have studied climate litigation state that the type of legal action most likely to succeed is one claiming injunctive or declaratory relief, albeit to date no such relief has been awarded against a fossil fuel producer. But, as Michael Faure and Marjan Peeters have pointed out, “a difficulty with injunctive relief is that it is not always very clear what Plaintiffs can and do specifically seek and consequently what courts could order”. This is where the system of global control of fossil fuel production described in this paper is likely to come in useful.

Suppose, for example, a coastal community sued a number of fossil fuel producers for a declaration that they were contributing to an increasing risk of sea level rise certain to cause damage to the plaintiffs; and suppose the judge was minded to find against the defendants. It is not clear at the moment what relief the judge could grant. The judge might be minded to grant an injunction to reduce production, but by how much?

Suppose however that a Climate Commons Trust had been set up and a Cap and Dividend scheme had been established, the judge could order the defendants not to sell fossil fuels without a licence from the Trust.

That then is the form of relief the claimants could seek. The point of the action would then be to gain the cooperation of the fossil fuel suppliers in the operation of a scheme to bring about the radical reduction in global carbon emissions called for by climate science, for the long term benefit of everyone.

As Jaap Spier has observed, “if injunctive relief were to be granted by the courts, that relief should apply to enterprises worldwide, thus creating the necessary level playing field”. The global system proposed in this paper, if established and widely supported, would provide the necessary level playing field.

Legitimacy and competence

“All governments rest on opinion.” – James Madison

This paper has outlined a way for humanity to meet its need to achieve radical reductions in the global aggregate of fossil fuel emissions. The emphasis has been on the need for a different kind of governance for this particular purpose. The new system proposed here would avoid some of the problems with the existing system: it would be free from the growth imperative and the dominance of the fossil fuel industry; it would not depend on nation-states arriving at agreement by negotiation; it would be free from political pressures such as elections. A Global Climate Commons Trust, perhaps established by a group of well-known institutions and individuals, could well prompt a broad popular movement in support. Thus the creation of a new institutional infrastructure might enable political action currently blocked by the existing system.

The question remains: how could a newly-formed institution claiming to have a global remit but created outside the existing governance system earn the legitimacy needed to carry this through? The practical test of legitimacy is general acceptance [26]. A Global Climate Commons Trust, especially if founded by respected organisations and individuals and also well-resourced, would be able to claim a tentative kind of legitimacy from the outset on the grounds that it constitutes a reasonable initiative to provide an effective way of addressing the concerns of the public about climate change, given the failure of current inter-national processes to address this grave danger effectively. It can be argued that the assumption underlying the 1992 Convention, the idea that action to address the global problem of climate change was something states had to reach agreement about before a global limit could be set and enforced, was simply wrong. The Trust can assert that it is not usurping the function of some other legitimate body; the global community, it can be claimed, never gave the United Nations authority to handle our relationship with the Planet’s climate system; adding that the UN’s record in playing this role, which it took upon itself, has not worked effectively. The UN may still have possession of the role, but in many people’s eyes at least, it no longer has legitimacy in this sphere, if it ever did.

Whether the Trust manages to win legitimacy for itself only time can tell. It probably depends on whether this institution succeeds in winning the support of a critical mass of worldwide civil society and the collaboration of nation state governments. Most governments can be expected to ignore it and then oppose it before finally coming on board. However, as mentioned above, there are some that might support from the outset.

Getting CapGlobalCarbon off the ground

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

The proposal to establish CapGlobalCarbon cannot be implemented unless a number of institutions and individuals work together to get it off the ground. They will need to agree shared purposes and principles, what Dee Hock called the genetic code of a purposeful human system. Here the purpose is clear: that of enabling humanity to achieve the necessary reductions of total global carbon emissions in time to avoid run-away climate change; and doing so in a way that benefits the poor. Although this particular initiative is new, and will require its own process to agree principles, many of the principles underlying it are already widely supported, for example the Bolivian Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth adopted in April 2010 at Cochabamba. Given that many powerful players in the mainstream of politics and the global economy may be minded to oppose it, CapGlobalCarbon is most likely to be successful if its principles include transparency, accountability and the rule of law, and if it also operates from the outset in a non-confrontational and cooperative way.

Can we make CapGlobalCarbon succeed? It comes down to political will. But not the political will of governments: the outcome now depends on the political will of the human family, the will to work together as members of the human family. And to establish the systemic structures we need in order to be able to organise our family affairs as a human family.

We can together see the climate crisis, which nation-state governments were not designed to deal with, as an opportunity to create the necessary, minimal required, global institutions to ensure that we live within limits. Instead of seeing CapGlobalCarbon as an extra layer of governance, it should be seen as a system designed to meet a need (a global system designed and put in place to address a particular global problem). It would erect a guard rail that would prevent us from breaching a vital planetary boundary. It would strengthen both the outer and inner edges of Kate Raworth’s Economic Doughnut.

It is human activities that have brought the planetary climate system perilously close to tipping points beyond which nothing that our species could do would be able to reverse the system’s descent into climate chaos where many species, possibly including our own, and many habitats would be driven into extinction. The wonderful world we know, the product of ten thousand years of climate stability, would be transformed out of recognition. However our species also has the awareness and understanding

  • to recognise that this is the future towards which the climate is now plunging;
  • to know that this is caused by global warming due mainly to the use we have made of fossil fuels;
  • to understand that this in turn is the natural consequence of the economic system on which we are currently hooked;
  • and to realise that the danger could be greatly reduced, hopefully avoided altogether, by drastically reducing the total aggregate annual global emissions from the use of fossil fuels.

CapGlobalCarbon and the UNFCCC

CapGlobalCarbon is a proposal by members of the Irish think-tank Feasta, the foundation for the economics of sustainability.  Implementation will require a new organisation with large resources and influential champions as well as widespread support. If you are interested in contributing in any way, please contact us at

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