Implementing CapGlobalCarbon

What would be the relationship between CapGlobalCarbon and the UNFCCC?

The Global Climate Commons Trust would be established independently from the UNFCCC. There are various possibilities as to the relationship it then develops with the UNFCCC. It could possibly be incorporated into the UNFCCC regime or, at the other extreme, it could have no relationship at all.

“to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system..” – UNFCCC Article 2

The first principle of the Convention, stated in Article 3.1, is that the states signing the Convention “should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity…

CapGlobalCarbon would provide a structure to enable humanity to implement this principle. The words of the Convention recognise that climate change is not primarily an issue between states: it is primarily an issue for the whole of humanity. Adoption as part of the UNFCCC process is therefore at least a logical possibility and could be desirable provided the necessary independence of the Trust was not affected.

Past experience in relation to Kyoto2 and the Earth Atmospheric Trust is that those engaged in the UNFCCC negotiations have not yet bought-in to the advantages of an
upstream cap. The possibility of CapGlobalCarbon being incorporated into the UNFCCC system seems remote. Rather than try to be part of the UNFCCC process, a more likely scenario therefore is that the Trust would aim to cooperate with it. The Trust would attend UNFCCC events, make direct contact with the representatives of nation-state governments and seek the support of UNFCCC staff in seeking to persuade individual governments to implement the Trust’s scheme or schemes within their jurisdictions.

It is possible that UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme, might be supportive of the proposals outlined in this paper and would be a valuable advocate. It is possible that a country – Bolivia is an obvious possibility – might champion this initiative.

Whilst incorporation into the UNFCCC is thus a possibility, and using it as a route to obtain the agreement of individual governments to police schemes managed by the Trust could be a great advantage and perhaps a practical necessity, it is important to stress that the formation of a Global Climate Commons Trust is envisaged as being achieved outside the UNFCCC process; and that implementation of a global Cap and Dividend scheme should be seen as a complementary initiative to the efforts of UNFCCC and is not necessarily dependent on approval within the UNFCCC system as such.

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 assumption here is that we have to take existing governance systems as they are. We can however take advantage of the fact that nation-state governments do exist and that they do have power to enact the quite simple kinds of regulation required to police a global Cap and Dividend scheme. 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.
  • Those governments who support neo-liberal economics should be attracted by the fact that a global Cap and Dividend scheme is designed to deliver the necessary reductions in the most cost-effective, revenue-neutral manner, using market forces as part of its toolkit, minimising bureaucracy and limiting regulation to the absolute minimum compatible with global compliance with the imperatives of climate science.
  • 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 police 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. This is likely to be a much easier campaign objective than trying to influence the negotiations under the UNFCCC.

As pointed out below, the global 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? That’s a good question and the Trust will have to answer it in due course. 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 global scheme.
  • Having set up a global scheme – ie having set the global cap based on climate science and having auctioned the licenses available on that basis – there will be several ways of bringing pressure to bear on governments which have not agreed to cooperate, for example:
  1. Campaigns by the population of the country directed at their own government
  2. Legal actions by communities threatened with damage from climate change – see below
  3. International pressure, within the UNFCCC or outside it.

A partial scheme, covering only countries which had agreed to cooperate, would be inadequate by definition and likely to be fraught with difficulties. A better approach might be to encourage fossil fuel companies to sign onto the scheme directly, perhaps via a labelling programme.

It is one of the attractions of CapGlobalCarbon that it does what the current system, because of its design flaws, fails to do, namely be a global regulator and only a global regulator. It can be set up as such at once, and look for support 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, including businesses which produce or consume fossil fuel. Moreover, it should be recognised that those businesses are not doing so out of pure wickedness, but rather because there is a lack of a global level regulation.

The fossil fuel sector of the economy will be strongly 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. This is a reality which needs to be accepted. CGC will provide a stable, preditable framework to enable these companies to plan their transition towards other economic activities as smoothly as possible.

The scheme proposed avoids any kind of micro-management of the economy: no price-fixing or other top-down manipulation is involved. By limiting the supply of fossil carbon to the world market and leaving it to the market to put a price on the available supply it meets the objectives of mainstream business organisations such as the OECD and the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group calling for a price on carbon. All other governmental responsibilities in relation to climate change would remain untouched, for example policies to promote energy saving and the production of renewables and policies relating to land use. Many other issues need to be addressed by governments. Indeed, due to the conflict between a global scheme limiting the amount of fossil fuels available and the current economic system’s need for growth, governments would also have to take additional actions to prevent the drastic reductions in the supply of fossil fuels likely to be required from causing economic collapse.

A number of industries are likely to be in favour of the CapGlobalCarbon, for example the non-carbon energy industries and the insurance industry.

The social justice element of CapGlobalCarbon

For CapGlobalCarbon to succeed it will need a very wide and strong support base. This will need to include many interests for whom climate change is not necessarily in the forefront of their minds. To people who are constantly dealing on an immediate basis with life-and-death challenges it is easy to see why climate change could seem like a less-than-urgent problem. It would be much more difficult to get CapGlobalCarbon off the ground if it did not have a strong social justice element.

Fortunately, 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. A great deal more research and discussion is needed to work out how the distribution would be organised. In general terms however it is clear this would tend to reduce both inequality and poverty. A suitably designed distribution programme could also reduce gender discrimination. We hope that this 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 Global 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.

The possibility of supportive legal actions

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 Global Climate Commons Trust had been set up and a global 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 (global system designed and put in place to address a particular global problem) and to do so in a way that involves the least possible governance.

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 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. Will anyone interested in contributing in any way please contact us.

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