Do we need a minister for planetary interests?

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Former French Environment Minister, Brice Lalonde, argues governments need a new way of looking at climate risks

Who is responsible for climate change? The glib answer might be the fossil fuel industry, the industrial economy, or more accurately all of us. But in a political sense who is responsible for addressing and managing climate change risks and their associate impacts?

With such a globally existential issue the answer should be the world's national leaders, but often responsibility for action on climate change is delegated to environment ministers, or, on occasions, energy ministers. However, with international climate change efforts to date delivering decidedly mixed results is it time for a new approach? A new form of governance that better ensures the long-term interests of the planet and the economy are well served? Do government's need to appoint a minister for planetary issues?

That was the fascinating proposal put forward earlier today by Brice Lalonde, former French Environment Minister and ambassador for climate change and current special adviser on Sustainable Development to the UN Global Compact green business initiative.

Speaking to BusinessGreen at the Global Estuaries Forum in Deauville, Lalonde said that long-running international climate change negotiations had been hampered by the fact that the key ministers involved in the talks were ultimately required to focus on narrow national, rather than global interests. He argued that a host of international issues, such as climate change, management of the high oceans, and biodiversity, were complicated by the failure of ministers to consider the planetary implications of their decisions.

As such, he proposed that governments could create a senior ministerial post with responsibility for planetary interests, who would be tasked with considering long-term impacts that transcended national boundaries.

The idea is not without precedent. Hungary has famously pioneered the appointment of a commissioner for future generations, and a number of countries, including the UK, have appointed specific climate change ministers whose responsibilities incorporate an international component and are subtly different from those of conventional environment ministers.

But could the appointment of a specific senior minister for planetary concerns help tackle the deadlocks that so frequently characterise international climate change talks and biodiversity summits? After all, UN negotiations are frequently hamstrung by the fact that the international body can only convene national governments who will then all too often act in their own narrow national interests, regardless of the impacts on long term risks or their neighbours. It is also a governance challenge that is frequently faced by estuaries, which are impacted by not just climate change risks, but also the actions of often competing governments within a river basin or along a coastline.

Lalonde argued such a role could have a positive impact, not least because the current UN climate talks are often hampered by the failure of those world leaders who should take responsibility for planetary level issues to engage more fully with the process. He argued the Copenhagen Summit was a success in so far as it established a commitment to keep temperature increases below 2ºC and introduced the crucial mechanisms for measuring, reporting and verifying emissions reductions, and credited that success on the attendance of world leaders who worked for over 24 hours to thrash out an agreement directly - attendance that has not been repeated at any subsequent climate change summits, even if hopes are running high that world leaders will attend both Ban Ki-moon's climate summit in New York this September and next year's Paris Summit. Lalonde also suggested that economic and finance ministers should be more involved in the talks, as they were essentially addressing an "economic challenge".

Lalonde confirmed cautious optimism was building ahead of the Paris Summit and joked that as long as there are no strikes the French government should be well prepared for the crucial meeting at Le Bourget Airport to the north east of Paris. There may be a certain irony in hosting a climate change summit in an airport, but Lalonde insisted the aviation industry was in fact making some impressive strides in acting on climate change.

He predicted that all the key players would attend with clear climate commitments in place, as expected, but he acknowledged that the challenge now was convincing governments to overcome short term national interests and deliver more ambitious pledges. It is a task that businesses, as well as putative Planetary Interest Ministers, can help with, Lalonde argued. "I've seen something I never thought I would see in recent years," he said. "International business diplomacy, where businesses are working together across borders to tackle these huge issues."

It seems unlikely that a new breed of minister will emerge in time to lead negotiations in Paris, but as Lalonde argues a successful summit is completely dependent on world leaders and their cabinets realising that they have to co-operate on a planetary level to tackle planetary risks. And if they need a reminder of the need for large scale international action, there are plenty of multinational businesses who are increasingly urging them to deliver the bold action on climate change that a sustainable global economy requires.

BusinessGreen is media partner of the Global Estuaries Forum

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