Our NCSE Report: Engaging Citizens, Pricing Carbon, Raising Ambitions for Action

The Symposia and Workshops of the NCSE Conference are meant to be wide-open discussions, so they follow the Chatham House Rules, where direct attribution is barred. We can share the names of the panelists from our Symposium, and we can say that the results of that session, with moderated discussion, were: fresh insights, new connections between competing perspectives, and a solid endorsement of carbon pricing, a bold transition to a low-carbon economy, and the role of citizens in making good policy happen.

Our Workshop was a Direct Engagement Working Session, part of the Pathway to Paris strategic coordinating project. (There is detail about the process and the outcomes below.)

The Symposium

The panel for our NCSE Symposium on Carbon Pricing, Coalition-building and International Action toward COP21, included:

  • Scott Nystrom, REMI
  • Tom Kerr, IFC/World Bank Group
  • Adele Morris, Brookings
  • Janet Larsen, Earth Policy Institute
  • Lutz Weischer, Germanwatch

The discussion was unique, because each of the speakers told their own story, about how they came to do the work they are doing, in relation to the topics in question. There were five different perspectives, each with real and varied insights, and which came together to provide an instructive framing for the challenges, and the potential of international efforts, through civil society, research institutions, political negotiations, to drive transformational policies and secure an energy transition, through which we expand our capacity for thriving and cooperation.

Two clear insights that emerged: ideas matter, and people matter. The quality of ideas and the openness to improving what we think and know, is crucial. And the people who are engaged—their level of commitment, their ability to work together, their contact with the lived experience of ordinary people, the degree to which they view politics as service—are ultimately the vehicle through which action occurs. What happens depends on who is engaged.

The Working Session

Our Direct Engagement Working Sessions are both a way of directly involving citizens and stakeholders in the Paris climate negotiating process and a framework for facilitating coordinated cooperation among civil society leaders, from around the world, to raise ambitions in the substance of the Paris agreement.

In our Working Session, participants reviewed outcomes from the January 15 Working Session in New York City, discussed their understanding of and interest in language and priorities for serious climate action, and then broke into six Working Groups. The Working Groups adopted the following names:

  • The Carbon Linguists
  • Champions of Carbon Pricing
  • Climate Finance for Sustainable Development
  • An Institution beyond UNFCCC
  • Moving from Abstract Metrics (2ºC) to Actionable Targets
  • Principles for Pricing Carbon

Almost every one of the Working Groups focused in some way on carbon pricing, and many in the room had policy and advocacy experience on the subject. We will review here some of the general discussion and findings of each of the Working Groups, and then propose a shared outcome from the Working Session.

The Carbon Linguists

This group spanned the issue and dealt with both the concrete issues of how to deal with carbon emissions and the metaphysical questions of how to define the meaning of carbon, as an issue. The metaphysical debate hinged on the need for greater awareness, generally, of how carbon-based compounds operate in the climate system—the language of messaging—and how even among policy experts, uncertainty about specific definitions leads to more or less interest in smart carbon pricing solutions.

The “language” question, then, was partly about communicative strategies, and partly about how to build consensus among policy-makers for the kind of framing, the kind of policy focus, and ultimately the kind of draft language that would allow the Paris agreement to drive transparent, effective carbon pricing.

The clear target outcomes were: clarity in decision-making, accelerated impact of climate solutions, actionable clear language in the Paris agreement itself.

Champions of Carbon Pricing

This Working Group focused on the problem of how an international process might assist countries in implementing carbon pricing. The discussion emerged from the clear insight: adding to the cost of a carbon-driven business model will reduce emissions. The key questions, of course, are: how to do this economically, and how to put the policy into practice, practically and politically.

The Working Group proposed the establishing of a Carbon Pricing Institute for modeling and implementing carbon pricing schemes for all countries. The Institute would identify strengths and weaknesses of different policy choices for different contexts, and add specific insights about the efficiency gains to be added from smart carbon pricing policies, in the development of INDC or country-specific low-carbon development strategies.

Assistance provided to countries to map their own optimal options for pricing carbon would lead to the widespread establishment, country by country, of carbon pricing around the world.

Climate Finance for Sustainable Development

This Working Group looked at ways to use international pubilc and private finance to accelerate low-carbon investment and development. Climate finance from public treasuries alone is insufficient to match the scale of investment needed.

The Working Group identified a need for a continuous, stable funding mechanism for the Green Climate Fund (GCF), and called for a price on carbon to provide the necessary market signal to mobilize private finance. The Working Group also explored the possibility that countries receiving GCF funding might be incentivized or required to price carbon.

In the absence of strong enough commitment of finance and carbon pricing, the next policy choice the Working Group identified was a reliable and effective mechanism for the transfer of advanced technology from developed to developing countries.

The target outcome, then, would be increases in financial flows to low-carbon investments in developing countries and sustained expansion of the clean tech sector.

An Institution beyond the UNFCCC

Formed from various perspectives interested in the architecture of a solution, this Working Group identified the need for an independent body, not entirely driven by the politics of government or the protocols of the UN process. The aim of the new institution would be to secure effective action toward outcomes.

The Working Group found that pricing carbon would be the most effective specific policy choice for this institution. The institution could actually serve as an information hub and clearinghouse for best practices, and for mobilizing resources required to facilitate effective carbon emissions-reduction policies.

It was proposed that a Carbon Pricing Organization, or a provisional secretariat, could be established, to foster cooperation among jurisdictions with an interest in pricing carbon. The question of sovereignty arose, with a focus on the role of citizens in steering a transition from a movement of citizens to an institution that gets results.

Equity, revenue return to households, and a Global Climate Trust were selected as desirable outcomes.

Moving from Abstract Metrics to Actionable Targets

The Actionable Targets Working Group focused on a specific insight shared in the morning’s Symposium: that emphasis on environmental factors (targeting a 2ºC temperature rise above pre-industrial levels), without clear and actionable economic understanding, may contribute to undermining consensus on the best way forward, thus slowing action.

The 2ºC goal is in the ratified UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and it serves as easily repeated shorthand for common but differentiated responsibilities and for the need to act. But the wrong target can breed failure, securing shared weakeness instead of shared strength in coordinated action.

The question itself can be treated as a decision about national strategies, technological capabilities, the role of science in making policy, and the question of whether general or specific aims are more catalytic in the long run. The Working Group focused on the need to identify the best target for people and entities to rally around. 2ºC suggests action, but no specific course of action.

A consistent, universally harmonized carbon price was identified as an optimal policy choice, capable of driving pervasive change. Simplicity, efficiency, building distributed local leverage, were identified as desirable policy parameters. Intermediate goals can help spur more ambitious action. Entrenched policy biases and political resistance are worse without actionable targets.

Prosperity, quality of life, and healthy ecosystems should be goals.

It was proposed that GHG concentrations (ppm) or emissions levels (1.3 tons per capita) or even full decarbonization, would be more clearly actionable. The value of border adjustments for adding carbon fees was identified as a leverage point. Revenue recycling was seen as a way to build value.

Principles for Pricing Carbon

The Principles Working Group got specific. The aim was to develop an understanding of the best way to motivate each country to price carbon in a nationally determined way that also rises to the true social cost of carbon. By “social cost”, the Working Group was referring to the total fabric of costs, not to a specific year-to-date figure relating only to government spending. The scope was broader than is generally discussed, but the amount was not defined.

Questions of international and intergenerational equity were treated as areas of concern. The Group aimed for all parties to implement a price on carbon by 2020, with all countries pricing in the full social cost of climate by 2025.

The Working Group proposed the following treaty language:

  1. Each party will price carbon in a way that reflects its social cost.
  2. Each party will determine its preferred method for implementing a carbon price.
  3. Pricing mechanisms shoudl not include exemptions for preferred or favored industries.
  4. Parties will fully implement a social cost of carbon by 2015.
  5. Border adjustments are a legal tool for addressing non-compliance.


Our January 28 Working Session, at the NCSE Conference, in Washington, DC, built on some of the insights from our January 15 Working Session. A consistent insight relating to the need to put a price on carbon was evident. Mobilization of solutions that are direct, effective, transparent, and benefit from simplicity and ease of implementation was a major focus of this Working Session.

There were at least three different proposals for an institution constructed outside the UNFCCC process, that would facilitate the building of consensus or the implementation of solutions: a Carbon Pricing Institute, a Carbon Pricing Organization, and a Global Climate Trust. The first two line up, in some ways, with the Program for Market Readiness, but would be established as open to all, motivational for solutions agreed in Paris, and could be run by civil society, possibly with a capacity for measuring and enforcement.

The third is not represented in the current mix of institutions and priorities, but some draw comparisons to the Green Climate Fund or the Global Environment Facility. In this case, the Global Climate Trust is proposed as both an expression of the Public Trust doctrine and the need to globally harmonize carbon prices.

The event provided direct support, in the validation of key ideas, and in the suggestion of specific proposals, for the Pathway to Paris principles and for the building of an enduring “third way to consensus”, a Citizens’ Climate Engagement Network, where it would be possible to have the weight of institutional clarity and consistency, recognized by the process, and also a way for people of conscience to continually access the process and steer it toward more ambitious outcomes.

Both the morning Symposium and the afternoon Working Session embraced and grappled with the new standards of “escalating ambition” and “no backsliding”, which have made their way into the UNFCCC process and were central to the US-China Climate Deal announced in November. There was clear support for the following as ways to ensure both: carbon pricing, directed climate finance, architecture outside the UNFCCC process, and ongoing direct citizen engagement.

Following Up

Our next Working Session will be Wednesday, February 4, 2015, at 7:00 pm New York time (4:00 pm San Diego, 6:00 am Dhaka, 8:00 am Feb 5 in Perth, 11:00 am Feb 5 in Sydney) on Fuze.

  • Fuze Meeting ID: 27660722
  • Join by phone: +1–201–479–4595 (enter Meeting ID when prompted)
  • URL: http://fuze.me/27660722

Participants are invited to convene small groups in their location, to offer not only the insights of one person, but of the group joining from that room.

We will facilitate discussion on Twitter, using the hashtag #CCLParisWS, and we will share useful insights in the Fuze meeting. Twitter posts will be considered informal contributions, not direct engagement in the Working Session. 

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  • Our NCSE Report: Engaging Citizens, Pricing Carbon, Raising Ambitions for Action