Think Again

10 Million Sardines in a Sea of Skyscrapers

How sprawling megacities -- from Lagos to Mumbai -- might just save the world.

"Megacities Pose the Most Dire Development Crisis of the 21st Century."


Two hundred years ago, just 3 percent of the world's population lived in cities. Today, cities hold more than half of all people on Earth. The number of urban residents is growing by nearly 60 million every year, a trend driven by rapid industrialization, rural-urban migration, and globalization. If this pace continues, by 2050 over 70 percent of people will call cities home.

The largest of today's urban centers are known as "megacities." Behemoths of tightly packed humanity, each megacity holds more than 10 million people. Back in 1950, only New York City held that distinction. Today 24 cities do, and at least a dozen more are expected to join the club by 2025. Most megacities are and will continue to be in the developing world -- Delhi, Jakarta, Shanghai, and Lagos, to name a few.

It's easy to look at statistics and view megacities as the looming development crisis of this century. The United Nations estimated in 2006 that there was just one toilet for every 1,440 people in Mumbai's Dharavi slum. In Cairo, meanwhile, traffic has gotten so bad that a recent World Bank report estimated that congestion costs the economy upwards of $8 billion each year in lost productivity.

Seizing on these gritty details, many journalists, environmentalists, and leaders of NGOs and development organizations portray megacities as calamities -- vast, open sewers that fuel a vicious cycle of poverty, increase income and health disparities, and degrade the environment. NGOs routinely highlight the worst of megacities (and garner support for their work) by telling stories of human desperation. Larger institutions like the World Health Organization emphasize figures, such as the fact that Cairo residents inhale the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes in air pollution each day, on which the international media feed. Others are more direct in their criticisms: Joel Kotkin, a professor of urban development, argued in a 2011 Forbes article that "megacities in developing countries should be seen for what they are: a tragic replaying of the worst aspects of the mass urbanization that occurred previously in the West."

To be sure, tens of millions of people in megacities do live in poverty and pollution. But emphasizing megacities' economic, social, and environmental problems discounts the fundamental opportunities they provide and the enormous capacity their residents possess. The popular perception is, in a word, incomplete.

In fact, the vast size and dense concentration of people and resources in megacities, which currently produce some 14 percent of the world's economic output, are their greatest assets. They are tools that can actually be used to drive economies, diminish poverty, and empower residents.

Making proper use of these tools is critical because mass urbanization is inevitable. From Europe to North America to Asia, no country has ever developed without it. Moreover, the world has already seen how megacities can emerge and grow in a sustainable way. In Seoul, for example, infrastructure projects and economic reforms from the 1960s onward helped transform South Korea from one of the world's poorest economies (equivalent to modern-day Benin) into the 15th largest, becoming a global commercial hub.

Transforming developing megacities -- and soon-to-be megacities -- will certainly take time, and no two cities will transform in the same way. Seoul had highly centralized governmental structures that not all cities do, especially those in poorer countries. But there are other ways to leverage the power of density, technology, and economies of scale. Megacities hold enormous value for the developing world, and ensuring that they deliver this value starts, fundamentally, with no longer seeing them as utter catastrophes.

"Megacities Are Too Crowded."


Decades ago, Paul Ehrlich's famous book, The Population Bomb, offered an apocalyptic vision of an overpopulated planet subsumed by social upheaval, starvation, and mass death. Today, most experts agree that Ehrlich's concerns were overblown. Yet a similar argument is now being directed at megacities. In 2012, Wendell Cox, an urban policy expert, wrote an article titled "Pakistan: Where the Population Bomb Is Exploding" that highlighted Karachi's massive growth. In 2011, Paul James, then director of the Global Cities Research Institute, told the Economist that "restricting the growth of cities -- in the sense of limiting their sprawling and bloating -- will, overall, improve the quality of life for humans on this planet."

Existing and emerging megacities are big, of course, and growing fast, which can make them seem chaotic and crushing to the Western eye. But big is not always bad.

To say megacities are too crowded "doesn't make sense from an economic point of view," Indermit Gill of the World Bank's development economics unit said in an interview. He explained that as countries develop, people and economic activity always become more concentrated in urban areas. This process of "agglomeration economics" is a good thing because it reduces production costs, allows businesses to share infrastructure, and provides large labor markets. In megacities, the scale of the phenomenon is even greater than it is in other cities.

Already, concentrations of cheap labor, industry, and markets in megacities and other urban centers heading toward "mega" status are vital to their countries. According to researcher David Satterthwaite, Mumbai contributes some 6 percent of India's GDP, despite having less than 1.5 percent of its population. In addition, megacities have per capita GDPs that are significantly higher than national averages. The difference is even more extreme in developing megacities. For example, Bangladesh's per capita GDP is $1,044, according to the country's Bureau of Statistics, but Dhaka's is more than $3,000. And these trends seem likely to continue. "Emerging market mega- and middleweight cities together … are expected to contribute more than 45 percent of global growth from 2007 to 2025," consulting firm McKinsey found in a 2011 report.

Bigger cities also better enable governments to deliver public services. McKinsey has estimated that it is 30 to 50 percent cheaper to provide fundamentals like housing, water, and education in populated urban areas than it is in rural ones. This helps explain why 90 percent of urban households in the developing world have access to electricity, compared with just 63 percent of rural households. Governments should provide such essentials to all their citizens no matter where they live, but in megacities they can often do so more quickly and efficiently.

As their populations grow, megacities' human density will eventually decline -- a natural progression in which residents get richer and new areas are built to accommodate them. (Consider glitzy satellite cities and suburbs of New Delhi like Gurgaon and Noida.) As that happens, however, the importance of agglomeration manifests in a new way: Governments work to enhance physical mobility in order to keep people and resources closely connected. Governments in Asia have been doing this for years, developing high-speed rail and other transportation options. Governments in other parts of the world are catching on: Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, is installing a rapid-transit bus system, and Nigeria is building a high-speed rail network to connect Lagos with other cities.

Governments, in other words, increasingly recognize that density pays, and they are working to keep people in a tight urban embrace.

"But Megacities Aren't Benefiting People in Slums."


It's certainly not news to say that, within megacities, the poor often live in slums: eyesores of crowded shanties and trash. In Pakistan, slum growth has accounted for nearly all recent urbanization. In Lagos, slums hold more than 70 percent of the city's population. U.N.-Habitat has called slums "the most intolerable of urban housing conditions," while books like Mike Davis's Planet of Slums portray the areas as post-industrial wastelands. Some development experts have even called for them to be bulldozed and their residents relocated.

But though slums may not be desirable places to live, a billion people call them home for good reason. Rural poverty rates are much higher than urban ones, and people thus go to megacities seeking better lives. Slums are their gateways, quickly absorbing migrants by offering cheap housing and informal work in close proximity; this is especially true in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. As Edward Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City, puts it, "Cities aren't full of poor people because cities make people poor, but because cities attract poor people."

Slums provide the first rung on the ladder of urban opportunity. Consider Rio de Janeiro, where Janice Perlman, founder of the Mega-Cities Project, which researches urban management around the world, began tracing the mobility of residents in the city's favelas in 1969. She found in 1999 that of the 36 percent of her original random sample group that she was able to locate, 67 percent, as well as 65 percent of their children, had moved out of the slums; 40 percent had become renters or owners of houses or apartments in other neighborhoods, and 27 percent were in improved public housing. Those who remained in the favelas cited better access to public services and better household amenities over the survey period.

Much of the economic opportunity that slums offer is through vibrant, informal marketplaces. Typically, every alleyway is a thicket of businesses and services: barbershops, food stalls, clothing shops, and more. In Mumbai's Dharavi, some 17 percent of structures are not actually homes but factories, shops, and offices, many of which are thriving. Small-scale leather, textile, and pottery factories in Dharavi have an estimated annual output of over $500 million.

Grassroots, demand-driven solutions to everyday problems also create opportunity. In East African slums, particularly those in Kenya, women without enough assets to obtain formal bank loans participate in "merry-go-round" systems in which they pool money together -- less than a dollar a week per person, typically -- from which members can take loans.

These informal markets and networks often make living in slums more of a conscious choice than critics of megacities assume. For this reason, "slum upgrading" projects, meant to improve people's lives by moving them elsewhere, have routinely faced local opposition, according to Robert Neuwirth, author of Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World. In Nairobi, for example, the government attempted to relocate several hundred residents and businesses of Kibera, the city's largest slum, to new apartment blocks starting in 2003. But many people rented the apartments out, took the cash, and moved back to the slum, where they had jobs, businesses, and social bonds that could not easily be replicated elsewhere.

This is not to romanticize poverty. The creativity and entrepreneurship on display in slums should not preclude governments from taking a stronger interest -- and making larger investments -- in residents' health and well-being, which are in dire need of improvement. In Nairobi's slums, for instance, child mortality is 2.5 times greater than in other parts of the city due to factors such as poor sanitation and minimal health care.

That said, it is also wrong to write off slums as cesspools or to say that they just need to be cleaned up or torn down. As Glaeser argues, slums are not a curse; they are signs of a healthy city.

"Megacities Can't Be 'Healthy,' Because They're Killing the Planet."


Megacities are among many environmentalists' favorite targets -- a modern "tragedy of the commons." Critics point out that cities are responsible for 70 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and that while Western megacities generally have efficient waste management, emissions regulations, and clean mass transit, most in the developing world do not. In Beijing, for instance, air quality has become so bad that media outlets have started referring to the phenomenon as the "airpocalypse." Scientist Charles Kolb, who has studied megacity emissions, said at the 2009 national meeting of the American Chemical Society that pollution from these urban centers "make them immense drivers of climate change." Based on his presentation, the society reported, "Controlling urban growth in the developing world is key to improving the world's air quality."

Yet megacities are greener than many people think -- and they can become even more so.

For starters, large cities offer environmental benefits that rural areas do not. Across all developing countries, 70 percent of urban households have access to modern cooking fuels (electricity, gas, kerosene), compared with just 19 percent of households in rural areas, where heavy burning of coal, wood, and other biomass contributes to deforestation and air pollution. As Stewart Brand, an environmentalist and the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, a guide to sustainable living, has written, "[I]n the developing world, their [cities'] greenness lies in how they take the pressure off rural waste."

Recent data also show that as urban areas enlarge, the growth rate of their emissions actually decreases. "[J]ust like biological organisms, the energy metabolism of metropolitan areas slows down as they increase in size: larger regions burn less energy per capita than smaller regions," the Martin Prosperity Institute, which studies urban issues, reported in 2009. When people are closer together, infrastructure and resource usage becomes more efficient. Larger cities have less road area per person, more intense use of public transportation, and shorter electrical transmission cables (which means "less loss of electricity and in turn lower CO2 emissions," according to the institute).

Density also allows megacities to scale up green projects in a big way. In the past decade, several megacities have made buses, taxis, and auto-rickshaws convert from burning petrol to using more environmentally friendly natural gas. A policy implemented in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2010 has converted over 40 percent of the city's vehicles to natural gas, reportedly averting 2,045 premature deaths from air pollution and saving an estimated $409 million (around 0.4 percent of Bangladesh's annual GDP). Sanergy, a company in Nairobi, is installing thousands of pay-per-use toilets that will convert the city's human waste into productive assets: cheap fertilizer for farmers and renewable energy from biogas that can help fuel the city's electrical grid. And other scalable ideas abound: According to a 2008 study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, if the world's 100 largest cities painted all their structures' roofs white and used more reflective paving material, it would offset nearly 44 metric gigatons of greenhouse gases. This is because more reflective surfaces absorb less heat, which can reduce overall urban temperatures and also lead to a decrease in energy use.

Meanwhile, slums' green advantage lies not only in their maximum density and minimum energy use, but also in their material resourcefulness. In Dharavi, 400 informal recycling units and 30,000 "ragpickers" sort more than 6,000 tons of trash every day, ensuring that, almost literally, nothing goes to waste. In Cairo, similarly, 70,000 garbage-pickers support themselves by collecting trash door to door; they recycle upwards of 80 percent of the waste they gather, while most Western garbage-collection companies only manage some 20 percent.

"[E]nvironmentalists have yet to seize the opportunity offered by urbanisation," Brand has written, but they should -- and soon. It is time, he says, to "green the hell out of the growing cities."

"To Seize Opportunities, Megacities Need Clear, Tight Urban Planning."


While existing and soon-to-be megacities hold enormous potential -- for the environment, for the poor, for economies -- important transformations are still needed to ensure that they can fully deliver on their inherent promise. To speed up these transformations (of infrastructure and services, among other things), some institutions and economists offer prescriptive policies and top-down planning recommendations. Many of these copy, or at least draw heavily from, Western urban-planning models. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for instance, argues that policymakers need to look to places like the Netherlands and embrace "compact city" policies (high residential density, little urban sprawl). More radically, Paul Romer of New York University's Urbanization Project has proposed building major cities from scratch; called "charter cities," these would be independent urban free enterprise zones, planned, built, and run in ways that economists and sociologists thought would be most efficient.

Foreign investment, guidance, and advice are not necessarily bad. But there is no one-size-fits-all approach to megacities in the developing world, and working from the bottom up is as important as working from the top down. "There are no historical precedents for such large cities," explains Alain Bertaud, a senior research scholar at New York University. "Lagos, Mumbai, and Shanghai have to find their own solutions. None of them can pretend to become one day successful blown-up models of Copenhagen or Amsterdam."

Finding better solutions begins with greater citizen participation. Satterthwaite argues that most policy decisions by international aid agencies and development banks are set up to support national, not local, governments. Thus, they are "not [directly] accountable to low-income groups," especially in urban areas. As a better model, Satterthwaite points to the success of grassroots efforts like Shack/Slum Dwellers International, a federation of urban, community-based organizations in 33 countries that interacts directly with local governments to improve basic rights and access to services for people in slums.

Similarly, as part of efforts to provide better sanitation, education, and other necessities to megacities' poor populations, governments, as well as international agencies, should seek to support and improve informal systems that citizens have already built -- rather than replace them with whatever is new and "better." There are numerous examples of how this can work. Since the early 1980s, the community-based Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi has trained activists, mobilized local funds, and invested over $1 million in toilets and sewer lines for more than 100,000 homes. The work has been so successful that the government has invested an additional $8 million to connect the project's lines to the city's main sanitation network. Sao Paulo, meanwhile, has incorporated informal recyclers into semiofficial cooperatives that operate around the city, and other Latin American cities have similarly integrated waste-pickers into their official sanitation systems.

Technology can also provide critical information about how megacities live and breathe -- and how they can be improved. In Kibera, crowd-mapping platforms are enabling residents to map schools, pharmacies, water taps, and other essential landmarks through text messaging and GPS-enabled smartphones. The maps have in turn helped NGOs choose locations for things like new toilet facilities; they could help Nairobi's government do the same. In Cairo, meanwhile, Bey2ollak, a crowd-powered traffic information app (with around 1 million registered users) allows commuters to post real-time information about the city's traffic. One local paper recently called the app "more essential to traffic than traffic lights." The government could use this existing data to better understand the city's traffic patterns and work with experts to develop new systems for managing the chaos.

Megacities, then, already contain many of the ingredients for their future growth and change. While governments may look beyond borders for some support, their first stop should be with the people who know the nooks, crannies, and other intricacies of these cities best.

"Sadly, Megacities Need Governments That They'll Never Have."


Harnessing citizens' input, informal economies, and bottom-up innovation requires good governance, and a deep concern among many development experts is that the relevant political leaders and institutions are often too corrupt or weak (or both) to get the job done. Romer and a colleague write that urbanization is peaking in places where "the capacity to govern is still in short supply." Urban policy expert Richard Florida, meanwhile, writes that many of the world's megacities "lack both" competent governments and the money they need to govern effectively.

But the outlook isn't so bleak. "It's certainly true that managing megacities is incredibly hard," says Glaeser, but it can be done well. Although political will, sometimes embodied in exceptional leaders, is an important ingredient here, that will and the policies it leads to can be produced and shaped by everything from simple economics to social pressure. Moreover, the private sector can play a critical role.

Consider Medellín, Colombia's second-largest city. (It is considered a "megacity of the future" or "megacity of tomorrow.") Two decades ago, Medellín was a city of violence, corruption, and dangerous cartels; today, it has been called the world's most "innovative city." Under the progressive leadership of Mayor Sergio Fajardo, the city invested heavily in parks, libraries, schools, and affordable public transportation (buses and cable cars), targeting poorer neighborhoods. According to one academic study, a cable car system installed in 2003, linking poor areas on Medellín's surrounding hills to the city's downtown below, reduced the murder rate in those areas by 66 percent in just five years.

Although he is a standout example -- the New York Times called him "nonconformist" -- Fajardo didn't emerge out of nowhere. In the late 1990s, he formed the Citizens Commitment movement, an initiative of artists, intellectuals, and businesspeople focused on decreasing poverty, violence, and inequality. He ran unsuccesfully for office in 2000 before finally winning in 2003, with wide support garnered over time from Medellín's middle class and poor. In other words, the seeds of Medellín's improvements were planted at the community level and cultivated over several years before finally blossoming.

In some cities, businesses' economic concerns have driven changes in governance. In the late 1990s, Mumbai's private sector realized that poor infrastructure, services, and urban planning were hampering growth and limiting investment. Leaders in the sector, along with the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, formed Bombay First, a nonprofit initiative with the goal of making the city a better place to live, work, and invest. In 2003, their work led to "Vision Mumbai," a report with recommendations for citywide improvements that have been endorsed by the local, state, and federal governments, as well as the World Bank. Bombay First now runs more than 40 urban improvement projects, and government officials chair two of the organization's action committees, enabling direct communication between the private sector and policymakers.

Then there is Nairobi, where the government is making some urban-planning decisions based on institutional self-interest. The city's transportation system has long been a nightmare: a semiformal, cartel-driven, fiercely competitive, and chaotic mix of over 20,000 small and large buses. Payments for rides are cash-based and split among owners, drivers, and conductors, making the whole system rife with corruption -- and tax evasion. To fix this, Nairobi's government is in the process of implementing new regulations stipulating that minibus drivers receive a basic salary and that vehicles be registered with savings and credit cooperatives. By July 2014, all minibuses, according to the government, must be cashless, using payment systems like smart cards and mobile money instead. In addition to enhancing transparency and accountability, once implemented, the new system will help the government collect taxes -- theoretically to invest in better infrastructure.

Better governance in both existing and emerging megacities can come about in many ways, from political and nonpolitical actors. And this ability to adjust and adapt extends well beyond governments, down to neighborhoods, economies, and citizens. While the world should not minimize megacities' legitimate development needs, it should view these cities as the resilient, growing organisms that they are. Anything less would be to discount the profound and positive impact they can have in the 21st century. 


Think Again

Think Again: Climate Treaties

Why the glacial pace of climate diplomacy isn't ruining the planet.

"An Ironclad Treaty Is the Only Way to Save the Planet."


Time is running short for the international community to tackle climate change.

Pressure to act comes from rising temperatures and sea levels, superstorms, brutal droughts, and diminishing food crops. It also comes from fears that these problems are going to get worse. Modern economies have already boosted the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere by 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution. If the world stays on its current course, CO2 levels could double by century's end, potentially raising global temperatures several more degrees. (The last time the planet's CO2 levels were so high was 15 million years ago, when temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today.)

Another source of pressure, however, is self-imposed. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the next global climate treaty -- to be negotiated among some 200 countries, with the central goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions -- should be enacted in 2015, to replace the now-outmoded 1997 Kyoto Protocol. (Once passed by state parties, the new treaty would actually go into effect in 2020.)

The race against both nature and the diplomatic clock is stressful. But in the rush to do something, the international community -- most notably, and ironically, those individuals and organizations most fervent about combating global warming -- is often doing the wrong thing. It has become fixated on the notion of consensus codified in international law.

The U.N. process for climate diplomacy has been in place for more than two decades, punctuated since 1995 by annual meetings at which countries assess global progress in protecting the environment and negotiate treaties and other agreements to keep the ball rolling. Kyoto was finalized at the third such conference. A milestone, it established targets for country-based emissions cuts. Its signal failure, however, was leaving the world's three largest emitters of greenhouse gases unconstrained, two of them by design. Kyoto gave developing countries, including China and India, a blanket exemption from cutting emissions. Meanwhile, the United States bristled at its obligations -- particularly in light of the free pass given to China and India -- and refused to ratify the treaty.

Still, Kyoto was lauded by many because it was a legally binding accord, a high bar to clear in international diplomacy. The agreement's provisions were compulsory for countries that ratified it; violating them would invite a stigma -- a reputation for weaseling out of promises deemed essential to saving the planet.

Today, the principle of "if you sign it, you stick to it" continues to guide a lot of conventional thinking about climate diplomacy, particularly among the political left and international NGOs, which have been driving forces of U.N. climate negotiations, and among leaders of developing countries that are not yet major polluters but are profoundly affected by global warming. For instance, in the lead-up to the last annual U.N. climate conference -- held in Warsaw, Poland, in November 2013 -- Oxfam International's executive director, Winnie Byanyima, said the world should not accept a successor agreement to Kyoto that has anything less than the force of international law: "Of course not.… If it's not legally binding, then what is it?" Ultimately, Byanyima and other civil society leaders walked out of the conference to protest what they viewed as a failure to take steps toward a new, ironclad treaty.

The frustration in Warsaw showed an ongoing failure among many staunch advocates of climate diplomacy to learn the key lesson of Kyoto: Legal force is the wrong litmus test for judging an international framework. Idealized multilateralism has become a trap. It only leads to countries agreeing to the lowest common denominator -- or balking altogether.

Evidence shows that a drive for the tightest possible treaty obligations has the perverse effect of provoking resistance. In a seminal 2011 study of climate diplomacy, David Victor of the University of California, San Diego, concluded, "The very attributes that made targets and timetables so attractive to environmentalists -- that they set clear, binding goals without much attention to cost -- made the Kyoto treaty brittle because countries that discovered they could not honor their commitments had few options but to exit."

This argument may sound like one made by many political conservatives, who opposed Kyoto and have long been wary of treaties in general. But the point is not that international efforts are useless. It is that global agreements are most useful when they include a healthy measure of realism in the demands that they make of countries. Instead of insisting on a binding agreement, diplomats must identify what governments and other actors, like the private sector, are willing to do to combat global warming and develop mechanisms to choreograph, incentivize, and monitor them as they do it. Otherwise, U.N. talks will remain a dialogue of the deaf, as the Earth keeps cooking.

"The Biggest Problem Is That Leaders Lack the Political Will to Craft a Treaty."


To explain multilateralism's recent failures, from the Kyoto Protocol to the Warsaw conference, its most fervent advocates often take aim at the same purported stumbling block: the spinelessness of politicians. Fainthearted presidents and prime ministers shy away from commitments to protect the planet because it is more politically expedient to focus on economic growth, no matter the environmental consequences.

Thanks to this conventional wisdom, "political will" has become a loaded term. If a leader doesn't sign on to a tough, legally binding treaty, he or she must be morally bankrupt. Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland who now runs a foundation dedicated to climate change issues, has called the "legal character" of climate agreements "an expression of or an extension of political will." Meanwhile, Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, has written that he hopes governments will "find the political will to act beyond short-sighted electoral cycles and the corrupting influence of some business elites."

The fallacy of the political will argument, however, is that it assumes everyone already agrees on the steps necessary to address climate change and that the only remaining task is follow-through. It is true that the weight of scientific evidence tells us humanity can only spew so many more gigatons of CO2 into the air before subjecting the planet and its inhabitants to dire consequences. But the only guidance this gives policymakers is that they must transition to low-carbon economies, stat. It does not tell them how they should do this or how they can do it most efficiently, with the least cost incurred. As a result, advocates of strict climate treaties hammer home the imperative for environmental action without providing for discussion about how countries can actually transform their economies in practice.

Consider environmental author and activist Bill McKibben's comments in early 2013 praising Germany for using more renewable energy: "There were days last summer when Germany generated more than half the power it used from solar panels within its borders. What does that tell you about the relative role of technological prowess and political will in solving this?"

Unfortunately, it tells us very little. It doesn't tell us what it would take to stretch the reliance on solar energy beyond some sunny German days or the subsidy levels required to make solar power a more widely used energy source. It also tells us nothing about how we could translate Germany's accomplishments to countries with very different political and economic circumstances. And it doesn't explain what would induce those diverse countries to accept a multilateral arrangement boosting the global use of renewable energy. All McKibben's factoid tells us is that the myth of political will is quite powerful.

Certainly, economic imperatives should not override environmental ones. Yet the standard for climate diplomacy should not be broad appeals for boldness that ask policymakers to deny trade-offs rather than wrestle with them -- particularly in the countries that the world needs most in the fight against global warming.

"China and India Are Ruining Our Chances to Avert Global Catastrophe."


Last fall, after the Warsaw meeting, many experts and pundits were quick to place blame for the gathering's tumult. "The India Problem: Why is it thwarting every international climate agreement?" a headline on Slate demanded. Other observers scorned India and China for saying they would not make "commitments" to greenhouse gas cuts in the 2015 climate agreement. (The meeting's attendees ultimately settled on the word "contributions.")

These complaints, however, are increasingly out of date.

It's true that, throughout most of the 2000s, China and India clung to the exemption that the Kyoto Protocol had granted them, arguing that the industrialized world had caused global warming and that developing countries shouldn't be deprived of their own chance to prosper. This has induced great anxiety because, since 2005, China's annual share of CO2 emissions has grown from around 16 percent to more than 25 percent, while India has emerged as the world's third-largest carbon emitter. In short, without China and India, progress on climate change will be virtually impossible.

By 2010, however, Beijing and New Delhi had begun to change their stance. A desire to save face diplomatically, combined with increasing pollution at home and domestic need for energy efficiency, have made China and India more willing to cut emissions than ever before.

Chinese leaders in particular are eager to recast their country as an environmental paragon, rather than a pariah. Some analysts attribute this shift to China's aspirations to global prominence. Playing off the popular idea of the "Chinese century," Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, has said, "If it's your century, you don't obstruct -- you lead." Recently, China has taken significant steps forward with green energy, mimicking many of the regulations and mandates that have helped the United States achieve environmental progress. Wind, solar, and hydroelectric power now provide one-quarter of China's electricity-generating capacity. More energy is being added to China's grid each year from clean sources than from fossil fuels. And in a show of its willingness to step up to the diplomatic plate, China signed an accord with the United States in 2013 that scales down emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, which are so-called super-greenhouse gases.

Yet these changes have not substantially bent the curve of China's total emissions. According to Chris Nielsen and Mun Ho of Harvard University's China Project, this is largely because the country's rapid economic growth makes the tools that have slowed emissions in other economies less effective in China: "[T]he unprecedented pace of China's economic transformation makes improving China's air quality a moving target." Ultimately, Nielsen and Ho argue, the only way for China to rein in emissions will be to attach a price to carbon, through either a tax or a cap-and-trade system. As if on cue, China is now setting up municipal and provincial markets in which polluters can trade emissions credits, with the goal of creating a national market by 2016.

The point here is that the leaders of countries with rapidly developing economies cannot predict environmental payoffs with any real confidence. Tools that work well for others may not for them. That's why China and India are hesitant to sign legally binding treaties, which would put them on the hook to hit targets that could prove much harder to reach than anticipated. They don't want to undertake costly reforms that might not have the predicted benefits, and they do not want to risk the hefty criticism that failure to abide by a treaty would surely bring.

Chinese and Indian leaders realize they'll be judged by their contributions to a cleaner environment, and they embrace the challenge. (Recently in India, more than 20 major industry players launched an initiative to cut emissions.) And they are apt to be less guarded on the international stage if a new climate agreement functions as a measuring stick, not a bludgeon -- much like the 2009 Copenhagen accord has done.

"But Copenhagen Was a Catastrophe."


In December 2009, the U.N.'s annual climate conference, hosted in Copenhagen, produced an agreement that is still roundly condemned by environmentalists, the leaders of developing countries, and political liberals alike. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the agreement let countries voluntarily set their own targets for emissions cuts over 10 years. "The city of Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight," the executive director of Greenpeace U.K. declared when the deal was reached. Lumumba Di-Aping, the chief negotiator for a group of developing countries known as the G-77, which had wanted major polluters like the United States to take greater responsibility for global warming, said the agreement had "the lowest level of ambition you can imagine."

In reality, however, the conference wasn't a fiasco. It offered the basis for a promising, more flexible regime for climate action that could be a model for the 2015 agreement.

The Copenhagen agreement had a number of advantages. It didn't have to be ratified by governments, which can delay implementation by years. Moreover, in an important new benchmark for climate negotiations, the agreement set the goal of preventing a global average temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius, with all countries' emission cuts to be gauged against that objective. This provision went to the heart of climate diplomacy's collective-action problem: Apportioning responsibility for cutting emissions among countries is always tricky, but the 2-degree target creates a shared definition of success.

Most importantly, however, the shift to voluntary pledges showed the first glimmers of lessons learned from the most common mistakes of climate negotiations. In the U.N. process, countries usually operate by consensus: They must all agree on each other's respective climate goals, a surefire recipe for dysfunction. (In 2010, the chair of annual climate talks refused to let a single delegation -- Bolivia -- block consensus, which counts as a daring move at U.N. conferences.)

Under Copenhagen, by contrast, countries can pledge to do their share while remaining within their comfort zones as dictated by circumstances back home. For instance, faced with economic imperatives to continue delivering high growth, China and India pledged at Copenhagen to reach targets pegged relative to carbon intensity (emissions per unit of economic output) rather than absolute levels of greenhouse gases. This was as far as they were willing to go -- but it was further than they'd ever gone before.

Admittedly, the Copenhagen conference wasn't perfect. The deal was struck on the conference's tail end, after U.S. President Barack Obama barged in on a meeting already under way among the leaders of China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. Many of the other delegates registered outrage that the five leaders had negotiated a deal in private by having the conference merely "take note" of the accord.

But the following year's U.N. conference fleshed out the Copenhagen framework, and it has since gained enough legitimacy that 114 countries have agreed to the accord and another 27 have expressed their intention to agree. Taken together, this includes the world's 17 largest emitters, responsible for 80 percent of carbon-based pollution.

The Copenhagen accord will expire as the Kyoto successor agreement takes effect in 2020. But it shouldn't be viewed as just a stopgap. In giving governments more flexibility, Copenhagen offers the chance to build more confidence -- and ambition -- where historically there has only been uncertainty and rancor. Any future climate agreement should do the same.

"Countries Will Never Keep Mere Promises to Cut Emissions."


The most obvious criticism of Copenhagen's system, of course, is that, while it is nice for countries to set voluntary goals, they will never meet them unless they are legally compelled to do so. That is why, just after the Copenhagen deal was reached, then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown hastily said, "I know what we really need is a legally binding treaty as quickly as possible."

To date, there has been progress on meeting targets set under Copenhagen. The United States and the European Union, for instance, are all within reach of meeting their 10-year goals, perhaps even ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, China's pledge to cut carbon intensity, based on 2005 levels, has become the framework for the country's new emissions-trading markets.

But the most important reason to have confidence in the Copenhagen deal lies in its provisions for measurement, reporting, and verification. If done right, these so-called MRV mechanisms will alert the world as to how countries are (or are not) reducing greenhouse gases, while also pushing states to keep pace toward pledged cuts.

MRVs rely on peer pressure. Countries report to and monitor one another, tracking and urging progress. This kind of system has already proved effective in a variety of international policy areas. For instance, the Mutual Assessment Process of the G-20 and International Monetary Fund brings together the major economic powers to discuss whether their respective policies are helping to maximize global economic growth or are instead widening imbalances between export- and consumer-based economies. The process is fairly new, but already, it is widely credited with prodding China -- long reluctant to discuss these issues in multilateral forums (sound familiar?) -- to let its currency appreciate and to make boosting domestic consumption a main plank of its five-year (2011-2015) plan.

MRVs have also proved valuable in narrower climate regimes, such as the European Union's cap-and-trade mechanism. As a 2012 Environmental Defense Fund report explained, "[B]ecause EU governments based the system's initial caps and emissions allowance allocation on estimates of regulated entities' emissions … governments issued too many emissions allowances ('over-allocation'). Now, however, caps are established on the basis of measured and verified past emissions and best-practices benchmarks, so over-allocation is less of a problem." In other words, MRVs have helped the European Union tighten market standards, correcting an earlier miscalculation and actually heightening the system's ambition.

The Copenhagen agreement enhanced the utility of global, climate-related MRVs by requiring greater transparency from developing countries. Under Kyoto, these countries were only required to provide a summary of their emissions for two years: a choice of either 1990 or 1994, and 2000. Copenhagen, by contrast, committed developing countries to report on their emissions biennially -- the first reports are due in December -- narrowing the gap with the requirement for annual reports that Kyoto imposed on developed countries.

Copenhagen's MRVs are not yet as strong as they could be. For instance, they should require annual reports from all countries, no matter their stages of development. These reports should also include a breakdown of information according to economic subsectors and different greenhouse gases, along with supporting details about data-collection methods. In addition, the process of reviewing reports needs to be fleshed out, taking cues from other strong MRVs that already exist, and wealthier countries should help underwrite the cost to developing countries of preparing comprehensive reports.

The good news is that, given the ongoing nature of U.N. climate diplomacy, it's still possible to strengthen Copenhagen's MRVs. Important new principles and guidelines for peer review have been established in negotiations since 2009, and those involved in climate diplomacy should now buckle down to finish the job. Robust MRVs would guarantee that the world makes the most of the next few years and draws on that experience to chart a new phase of climate action anchored in a 2015 agreement.

"Forget Treaties. Solutions Will Come From the Bottom Up."


Some critics of the U.N. process, hailing from conservative political ranks, the private sector, and other areas, have lost all patience and think that a top-down process, particularly one negotiated in an international forum, is the wrong way to go. They point out that, while national leaders negotiated the Copenhagen deal, actual progress toward its goals is being cobbled together by actors at lower levels -- in cities, states, markets, and industries. They are choosing which energy will generate electricity, honing farming practices, improving industrial efficiency, and the like.

Indeed, some policymakers and climate analysts point to the influence of local authorities as a game-changer for climate action. After all, Chinese cities and provinces have begun building emissions-trading markets, and California has passed a law establishing one of the most robust such markets in the world. Meanwhile, leaders of the world's megacities have banded together to cut emissions in what's known as the C40 group, established in 2005. As C40 chair and Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes has put it, "C40's networks and efforts on measurement and reporting are accelerating city-led action at a transformative scale around the world."

Given this sort of local progress, it is certainly worth asking whether diplomats and national policymakers should just get out of the way. Maybe a thoroughly bottom-up approach would be better for the planet than an international climate regime, no matter how flexible. David Hodgkinson, a law professor and executive director of the nonprofit EcoCarbon, which focuses on market solutions for reducing emissions, has argued that such an approach has "more substance" and "probably holds out more hope than a top-down UN deal."

Ultimately, however, this view is misguided. There is no substitute for high-level diplomacy in getting everyone to do their utmost and in keeping track of their efforts. In particular, as Copenhagen reminded the world, the value of the agenda setting, peer pressure, and leverage unique to international diplomacy shouldn't be overlooked. Moreover, we've seen in other policy spheres how the international community can first establish fundamental principles, which then sharpen over time with the aid of global coordinating bodies and more localized initiatives. For instance, the nonbinding 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights established a framework for a host of subsequent international treaties, U.N. agencies, regional charters and courts, national policies, and, more recently, corporate responsibility efforts.

Practically speaking, it would also be shortsighted to rely on an assortment of subnational actors to tackle a global problem like climate change. Determining how the work of these actors intersects, what it adds up to, and who monitors that sum are critical matters best managed from the top-down. As the goal of preventing a global average temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius reminds us, it is the aggregate of countries' reduced emissions that will be the ultimate test of success.

Even so, the status quo of climate talks, focused on badgering countries to join another legally binding treaty, represents diplomatic overreach. This hasn't worked in the past, and it won't in the future. The international community should give up the quest to sign a legally binding treaty in 2015. Stop fretting about political will and acknowledge the various pressures different countries face. Focus on fully implementing Copenhagen's pledge-and-review system and use that as a model for the successor to Kyoto. Then, allow that new pact to be what steers action and innovation.

Interest in this approach is slowly mounting, including in the U.S. government. Todd Stern, the State Department's special envoy for climate change, said in a 2013 speech, "An agreement that is animated by the progressive development of norms and expectations rather than by the hard edge of law, compliance, and penalty has a much better chance of working." Still, there's a long way to go before the all-or-nothing attitude that has dominated climate diplomacy for so long disappears for good.

In the meantime, the environmental clock keeps ticking.

Top image: Illustration by Maayan Pearl; photo by Joel Simon/Getty Images

Photos, top to bottom: Pedro PARDO/AFP/Getty Images; FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images; ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images; JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images; JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images