Aubrey Meyer: Contraction & Convergence as a pragmatic framework to solve Climate Change

By Bhavani Prakash

In 1992 the world agreed a Climate Change Convention at the UN. Its objective is to halt the rising concentration of Greenhouse Gas [GHG] in the atmosphere at a level that is low enough not to trigger dangerous rates of climate change. By 1995 the Convention had been ratified by a sufficient number of Governments to bring it into force and a process of International negotiations began to control and reduce the GHG emissions from the human economy that were responsible for this rise of concentrations in the global atmosphere.

Climate scientists now see a 2 degree C temperature rise above pre-industrial levels as a ‘safe’ upper limit. GHG concentrations have risen 40% above preindustrial levels and need to stop rising below 60% to keep within that 2 degree temperature limit. To achieve that, global GHG emissions need to fall to near zero within about the next forty years.

To accelerate to this greener future with abundant jobs in emissions-free renewable energy, clean transport and infrastructure, sustainable agriculture and oceans, a global climate deal on GHG emissions control is an essential pre-condition and now urgently needed. The Contraction & Convergence [C&C] model discussed here offers a framework for such a global climate deal.

Attempts over the last seventeen years at arriving at a climate deal during the COP climate change summits have been ‘guesswork’ and a ‘patchwork’, with various countries coming up with emission reduction numbers which are mostly expedient to their economic interests, rather than meeting the objective of the Convention and the collective good of humanity.

Nations need to sit down together to agree jointly how much carbon emissions need to contract overall to stay within the total budget of emissions that is required to stabilise concentrations at a safe level, and decide how each nation’s or region’s share of that budget can be determined in a manner that is rational and fair. C & C then proposes that within the overall contraction that is required, all nations or regions converge to a uniform per capita emission figure. This creates shares of the budget as either ‘entitlements’ to emit or actual emissions. The key negotiation under C & C is the rate at which the over-consumers and under-consumers need to converge.

With this framework accepted as the basis of the process from now on, guesswork is superseded and the likelihood that planet will remain within the carbon budget is considerably increased.


AUBREY MEYER, the Founder of the UK based Global Commons Institute has been advocating the Contractions & Convergence [C&C] framework for over 20 years. He is a well recognised figure by governments, businesses and non-profits alike the world over, and has received numerous awards such as the City of London Life-Time’s Achievement Award 2005, UNEP FI Global Roundtable Financial Leadership Award 2007 and Guardian Hero 2008 amongst several others.

He speaks with Bhavani Prakash of Green Collar Asia (GCA) about the imperative of C&C. He says it needs to be adopted by all governments to give clear market direction that will benefit industry, and enable a transition to a sustainable future on a planet that stays beneath 2 degrees Celsius rise.

As an accomplished violinist, it comes as no surprise that Meyer draws parallels between the C&C framework and music. He says in the orchestra each player is required to play, not to his or her own tune, but a part in a commonly laid out score.

GCA:  Do you think that it is still possible to stay within the 2 degrees C target? The C&C framework shows tremendous clarity in terms of what all nations need to do together and in concert. Why is there so much wrangling amongst governments to agree in a rational and objective manner to the target emission reductions that are necessary to be achieved? After all, aren’t they pulling numbers out of a hat, when what is required to be done by each nation is thrown up by the model?

Aubrey Meyer: A C&C framework agreement to stay within 2 degrees might still be achievable. However, the wrangling about how to establish this has now become a habit and we must break it. Understandably Governments are used to getting through the international negotiations rising so far with a mixture of aggressive guesswork over grievances and a patchwork of arrangements to smooth the process, where and if possible. With some ebb and flow through the ages, it is largely this incrementalism that has been true in peace and war for thousands of years of civilization. It is generally what has given rise to the casino-economics that now dominates today’s ‘global economy’. Some think of this as ‘evolution’ in a game programmed to be the survival of the fittest.

As we have tried to negotiate UNFCCC-compliance, the model of casino-economics used so far has resulted in countries just picking numbers for emissions control out of a hat. We now have a twenty year record of having increasingly inadequate discussions at the UNFCCC and negotiations at the margins of the problem rather than the jointly committed purpose of achieving compliance. Year on year we fail as we continue to cause the problem faster than we evolve the solution. This ratio of the rate-of-the-problem to the-rate-of-the-solution is even worse now than it was in 2003-1997-1992.

International discord has increased with every COP. In a phrase, since it has not been working, continuing with this model is inappropriate and we must deal with this. Ban Ki Moon has correctly stated that this failure is a global suicide pact.

Survival is the ‘now’ issue in the face of a global common problem. Long-term pollution of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases means we now collectively face the biggest risk to civilization it has ever faced. All countries are now at risk of dangerous rates of climate change taking hold, whether or not they were historically part of causing this situation. Quite simply, unless the survival imperative now drives us all, none of us will survive at all.

Factuality shows we are obviously now governed by the climate-science collated in the IPCC and the global-scale constitutional or rights-based politics at the UNFCCC. From this perspective, the UNFCCC Executive has correctly said that C&C is ‘inevitably required’ for compliance. The structure of the negotiations is therefore inevitably based on C&C model calculations, again for example outlined in the animation here.

GCA:  You’ve proposed an elegant solution to climate change through the C&C framework. What makes it a pragmatic tool for climate change negotiators?

Aubrey Meyer: There has been a tendency by some to see C&C as just elegant. It certainly is that. Also, some see it as justice-based which one can easily argue as well. More important is that it is a rational and transparent procedure.

However, what is most important and not so readily seen and understood is that C&C is also pragmatic. C&C is pragmatic because it is a tool for negotiators at the UNFCCC. It provides them with a tool to use for settling their differences and setting out a shared and common basis for compliance with the UNFCCC objective.

The C&C mechanism

First, noting the UNFCCC objective, C&C entails counting out the ‘contraction-budget’ for future global ‘carbon-emissions’ that achieves safe and stable future greenhouse gas concentration in the global atmosphere, in other words UNFCCC-compliance.

Rooted in IPCC climate-science, the C&C model will calculate any contraction:concentration rates with risk rates arising. For example it will calculate a full-term emissions contraction budget over fifty years weighing around 400 billion tonnes carbon to keep to a ceiling of 450 ppmv CO2 in the atmosphere (See C&C animation here)

Then, noting the UNFCCC principles of equity, C&C enables negotiators to settle headline differences about differentiated responsibilities within that full-term budget, or ‘contraction-event’. The mechanism for this is simply that all countries’ ‘shares’ in this budget are calculated to converge on the global per capita average of consumption arising under the budget. It is shared by everyone, simply as ‘under- consumers’ and ‘over-consumers’ converging on this average. While the option for setting a population base-year to be set is there too, it is the convergence-rate that needs to be negotiated.(See C&C animation here)

There are three important negotiating features embedded in the model this far:  –

1. The shares that are pre-distributed this way are emissions-entitlements. These are tradable and are not the same as per capita emissions per se.

2. The rate of convergence should be the result of a negotiation between the industrial country group and the industrialising country group, as groups. Doing this can resolve the thorny issue of ‘historic responsibilities’ of the industrialized countries. Using this recognizes that the faster the convergence rate is the more future shares are deducted from the accounts of the industrial country group and added to the accounts of the industrialising country group [and vice versa]. This is no small matter as these shares are valuable tradable equity in any global carbon-market that may arise.

3. Countries within each of these two groups, should agree amongst themselves how they may wish to redistribute entitlement amongst themselves after the headline C&C agreement has been struck.

GCA:  What kind of support have you got for C&C amongst various governments? Where is the underlying inertia in translating that into action?

Aubrey Meyer: Support for C&C has become deeper and more diverse since the model was introduced in 1996. There was strong support for C&C at COP-3 in Kyoto in 1997. The UK Climate Act of 2008 is now based on C&C. Ban Ki Moon and many others have also been strong supporters of C&C, as have been many across non-government sectors and disciplines across the years.

However, at the UNFCCC, clear support from governments has been tricky for them as generally they remain locked in this mixture of rivalry, mistrust and incrementalism.

Stepping out alone is difficult, but en-groupe is easier. The UK’s introduction of C&C at COP-15 in 2009 as part of such a group was welcome. However, their attempt to prescribe the rates of C&C was not welcomed and in fact it led to an outcry. But Developing Country Governments were not objecting to the C&C principle per se. They objected to the rates of C&C prescribed [particularly on convergence by 2050] by the UK Government led alliance.

The way forward is to negotiate and not to prescribe the rate of convergence as shown in some detail in the following slideshow:

Slideshow link here (Refresh screen if slideshow is missing)

The underlying inertia may be due to the sometimes understandable feeling that the issue is so huge that individuals, institutions, the markets and even Governments and the United Nations are all inadequate and powerless against it.

GCA:  Do you think something has to change fundamentally, such as the existing paradigm of GDP centred economic growth, to enable C&C to be applied?

Aubrey Meyer: Yes. It is not so much that ‘I think it should’ as ‘we all know it will’. GDP is the dollar-numeraire that tries to measure infinite economic expansion in a finite time-space. It is physically impossible. Any attempt to prove that it isn’t will finish the destruction of the biosphere. So if we don’t rein it in, that disaster certainly will.

Growth and development are more personally reflexive, challenging and devotional – like ‘martial arts’ – than mere capital-accumulation, carpet-bagging and empire-building. C&C internationally means a global economy that is sensibly subject to limits of production and consumption, pollution and population.

C&C will help that to agreement. But at the same time, every day more and more people seem to be looking to build resilient communities where they live that are not dependent on dysfunctional systems and anonymous and autocratic institutions making wars to access remote resources and dispossess ordinary local people.

GCA:  What about industry – is the knowledge and acceptance of C&C as a framework for addressing climate change well known? How can businesses move away from the current paradigm where the focus is on short-term quarterly results? How can they reinvent their business models?

Aubrey Meyer: A C&C global-climate-deal makes sense for everyone, business and industry included, simply because no-global-climate-deal doesn’t. Many people working in these are parents and are concerned about their children’s prosperity. They are also all professionals and do quarterly accounting, but they do planning in decades and now they are beginning to realize that they can’t do that because climate change threatens to overwhelm that future.

They should be lobbying like many health professionals, architects, religious authorities and others already are to get the UNFCCC parties to negotiate a C&C global-climate-deal.

If there is something better than C&C that’s good and we should use it. But after twenty years of negotiating at the UNFCCC, what is it and where is it? It is nowhere to be seen. As the Poles say, we’ve been trying to leap the ravine in two steps. The truth remains that half a deal is impossible just as the ravine swallows you with only half a leap. However, a whole deal is possible and is certainly better than no deal because if the stand-off continues, no deal is the ravine that deepens to disaster. Together we all need to become sensitive to the cost of the failure that attends continued stand-off and resolve to succeed and make using C&C the basis of that success.

GCA:  What are your comments on the climate adaptation funds? Do you think developing countries have got a raw deal? Can you explain why you think per capita carbon entitlements provide a more just system for poorer countries to be compensated for their good carbon behaviour?

Aubrey Meyer: Developed and Developing Countries didn’t really get a climate-deal [in the sense of ‘an agreement’] at all. What we’ve got still is ‘no-deal’ and going to the wall. As long as we are adapting to success in conditions governed by a deliberate and determined global deal for UNFCCC-compliance, funds for adaptation are and will be needed, particularly by the most vulnerable and the poorest countries. However, for them it is much easier and better to leverage that support with a global-climate-deal that is inclusive and it is virtually impossible and really makes no sense without one. Pity payments at the margins of collective failure are a meaningless mockery, so it makes sense for them to combine and strategically lobby for a C&C-based deal together.

GCA: What message do you have for Asian businesses and governments in particular, especially when there is a race to catch up with western nations?

Aubrey Meyer: Economic conditions in Europe are really quite difficult now because of the structural failure and collapse that has been forced on us mostly [but not only] by Wall Street and the utterly massive Corporate off-shore banking scandal. Across Europe, the public are now being dragooned into the paying for the biggest bank bailout in history. The social cost of this has been enormous. I hope and trust that Asian countries won’t want to catch up with any of that.

GCA:  What is the scope for green jobs creation by aiming for drastic and ambitious reductions in carbon emissions?

Aubrey Meyer: All jobs in all sectors should now be green jobs, but this is particularly relevant in the energy sector. The growth of zero-emissions technology development, deployment and diffusion and the jobs that go with that needs to be faster than any other sector of the economy and all Governments need to be guided by that ratio. We have to solve this problem faster than we are making it.

GCA:  Economics assumes that human beings are rational actors. What has your personal experience been in your 20 years as a climate change advocate? Can we borrow something from behavioural sciences and psychology in the way individuals and institutions work, and are slow to adapt to change? Do you think a radically different communications approach is needed to get the message across to governments, industry and civil society to make known the urgency of climate action?

Aubrey Meyer: The focus of ‘economics’ is the ‘dollar’ or equivalent. The beauty of C&C according to eminent Australian economist Ross Garnaut is its ‘simplicity’. He says, contestable economic computations do not enter the allocation formula. As in music, with C&C the unit-of-measurement – or the ‘numeraire’ – is a ‘real thing’. In music it is for example the structure of a piece of string of constant length and at constant tension expressing the first law of theoretical physics.

Here, if you halve the length, you exactly double the frequency [Hz] and so on. With C&C, the numeraire is carbon-per-person-per-unit-time, subject to the GHG concentration limit in the UNFCCC objective.

With economics the numeraire is the monetary-unit [say the dollar] captive to the search for infinite exponential growth. As Woody Allen once said, “Eternity is a very long time, especially towards the end.” To be led by such ephemera was perhaps once amusing, but it has now become a dangerous and destructive delusion. Released from this ‘economics’, goal-focused behaviour is not irrational nor is it a new discipline. In fact this teleology is the basis of our civilization. It is the deep simplicity that underlies all complexity. However, if new ways of communicating and re-establishing that are needed and are available, then definitely ‘yes’, and why not? Let’s do that.

Visit the Global Commons Institute website here and stay in touch with the latest news on Contractions & Convergence here

About the interviewer:

Bhavani Prakash is the founder of Green Collar Asia, a thought-leadership portal on developments in the green jobs sector, where macro-level trends, as well as insights from green professionals and entrepreneurs are brought together.

She is a recruiter, speaker, trainer and writer in the environment/sustainability sector. She has an MBA from Indian Institute of Management Calcutta and an M.Sc in Financial Economics from University of London. She is also a certified EQ Coach with Six

Connect with Green Collar Asia on LinkedInFacebook and Twitter.  Bhavani Prakash may be contacted via bp[at] or through LinkedIn.

 Further links you may be interested in:

GCA: Report: Unburnable Carbon – Are the world’s financial markets carrying a carbon bubble?

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