Five thoughts on governance

by the C2G2 team / April 10, 2019

For many people, the first reaction to the word ‘governance’ is to think of laws, rules and regulations.

For us in C2G2 these are certainly important, but far from the whole story. We tend to think of it much more broadly.

For us, governance is an amalgam of multiple and often quite diverse processes, some formal, some less so, involving people from across society in all sorts of ways. Sometimes this leads to formal conclusions, like laws. Other times, the impact is harder to define – yet could be no less important.

This expansive approach often requires explanation. We have learned that governance is one of those terms that means different things to different people, and this can lead to misunderstanding. As a governance initiative, it becomes quite important to clarify what we mean!

This blog presents five insights we have gleaned during our interactions. They don’t pretend to be comprehensive, but they reflect lessons learned. We will produce a more structured policy brief later, but hopefully this gives some insights as to what we are aiming for.

  1. Governance is more than governments.

While definitions vary, we take our cue from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which describes governance as a “comprehensive and inclusive concept of the full range of means for deciding, managing, implementing and monitoring policies and measures.”

The IPCC also “recognizes the contributions of various levels of government (global, international, regional, sub-national and local) and the contributing roles of the private sector, of nongovernmental actors, and of civil society.”

To be clear, the need for governance at an international level, in addition to national and local levels, does not mean a call for a ‘global government’. Furthermore, effective governance needs more than governments.  In today’s complex, interconnected world, governance  requires a multiplicity of people and processes, interacting at different levels.

  1. Governance can lead to less of something, or more of something, or to doing something more responsibly.

One of the most important misconceptions is that governance necessarily constrains action. It might, if necessary, but it can also include measures to encourage and enable activities that may not otherwise have happened.

This is important. There may be a need for constraints and limitations. But tackling climate change also requires an enabling environment for innovation, research and development, done in responsible, equitable ways so that the speed and scale of the global response, in accordance with the IPCC’s assessments, can be attained. Governance also includes norms and guidelines to address accountability, transparency, and liability. This does not always take the form of binding laws or incentives: it can include voluntary approaches, albeit with oversight or checks and balances.

At C2G2, we don’t have a position on whether a particular technology is needed or not. But we do believe that every technology or approach needs to be governed, including in the research phase, and that governance should be open to the possibility of constraint, encouragement, and/or improvement.

  1. Governance for Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Modification (SRM) is likely to vary considerably. At the same time, there is no risk-free pathway, and effective governance needs to be joined up.

When discussing risks, it is important be specific about the kinds of risks being discussed, and to do so in a way that compares the risks of one particular course of action with those of other options. .

Large-scale CDR and SRM approaches differ fundamentally in terms of risks, costs and benefits, and need specific approaches to their governance. These two approaches have to be seen in the context of radical emission reductions, which is essential under any scenario described by the IPCC for limiting warming to 1.5oC . All scenarios described in the IPCC’s SR15 that keep warming to below 1.5oC also require the large-scale use of CDR.  The same report finds that SRM should not be considered for use at this time due to the very significant gaps in our knowledge.

One finding is clear: neither CDR or SRM are substitutes for cutting emissions and must be considered within an overall risk-risk management framework that also includes the risk of inaction – or insufficient action – on the part of the international community to reduce global emissions and adapt to inevitable climate impacts.

Perception of risk is defined in many ways.  The public often assumes some ideas are manifestly riskier than others. For example, they may see SRM as inherently more problematic than CDR . Within the range of CDR approaches, people often think technical approaches are riskier and/or require more governance than “natural” or nature-based solutions.

This may seem intuitive, but may or may not actually be true. We don’t always know enough to decide.

In all potential approaches there is a mix of risks, costs, trade-off issues and potential benefits, both known and unknown. It is not immediately clear which are less risky and or provide more – or fewer – benefits. Part of governance is working out how best to generate the knowledge we need to assess these considerations.

In order to take informed decisions, governance must be both specific and holistic. There are good reasons to address CDR and SRM technologies separately, but this needs to be within an overarching framework that starts with radical emission reductions and includes adaptation, and is seen within the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.  In practice, this is easier to say than to do.

  1. Effective governance is built on common principles that are then adhered to in agreements. This can be at a challenge at both levels.

You might think the main challenge of governance is finding the right mix of rules, incentives, standards and protections to keep everyone safe. In practice, the hardest part sometimes comes before that discussion begins. The trickiest bit can be to agree on the principles which underlie future action, and, most importantly, that agreements built on these principles are kept in practice.

Effective governance commonly includes, among other considerations, inclusivity, accountability, transparency, the precautionary principle, minimisation of harm, and considerations of equity, including intergenerational equity.

But not everyone agrees, and sometimes governance efforts can fall apart over these disagreements, before the practicalities begin. For example, the question of whether to reference the precautionary principle was cited as one of the blockages to a resolution at this year’s UN Environment Assembly.

To what extent that masked a more fundamental disagreement about international oversight is not clear. Suffice to say, getting agreement on the governance of these technologies will likely require more work on establishing commonly shared principles, including accountability and transparency, which are of direct relevance for the implementation of any agreement.

  1. How the conversation is framed helps shape governance.

This may not always be obvious, but all communications which define and frame a conversation can exert long-term influence, with a lasting impact on more formal governance efforts. While other factors, such as past precedent and geopolitical dynamics, can also shape how governance is formed, terminology and use of language has had a striking effect on how the governance of geoengineering has developed.

For example, past decisions by influential academic organisations – such as the Royal Society in the UK, or the National Academies in the US – led to a definition of geoengineering as comprising two categories, CDR and SRM.

This has profoundly influenced subsequent consideration, with far-reaching consequences. Was this definition “correct”? Were enough people consulted? Who should decide?

Examples of such framing questions could be: Should one use the term “geoengineering” at all?  What do we mean by “nature-based solutions” and does this imply there are no existing governance gaps or trade-off considerations (e.g., land use)?  Is “climate restoration” a valid concept, and does it obscure some key issues on how to do this?  Is “termination shock” or “moral hazard” the right way to think about some of the risks posed by stratospheric aerosol injection?

Many organisations are now actively engaged in discussions that will have a powerful influence on governance, whether consciously or unconsciously. This is especially true at this early stage in the debate.

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