Global environmental challenges
U.N. climate process in emergency ward
Old rifts between negotiators of rich and poor countries re-surfaced at UN climate talks last weekend, posing a question mark over the continued usefulness of meetings held at least twice a year, and which can be traced back to the signing of the UN Climate Convention on Climate Change in 1992.
Is it now time to end those talks, which are focused on delivering a global climate deal to succeed the present Kyoto Protocol after 2012?
It could be argued that their last big breakthrough was the signing of Kyoto in 1997. Possible alternative processes include more streamlined meetings of ministers and leaders, to agree emissions cuts and funds to help the poor face a warmer world.
The UN process was thrown into focus by a Copenhagen climate summit last December which failed to deliver an “agreed outcome” on a new global deal, as promised by environment ministers two years earlier.
About 120 world leaders flew into Copenhagen to sign a deal, but found 87 pages of rather indecisive documents riddled with square brackets, indicating unresolved choices for example on emissions targets.
It had taken negotiators two years to produce those texts, at six additional, meetings of one- or two-weeks in Bonn, Germany and in Bangkok, Barcelona and Accra, which cost $30 million, according to the UN climate secretariat. Costs included the flights, hotel accommodation and daily allowances paid to negotiators from least developed countries, as well as the rent of the venue and security.
The $30 million excludes the costs of scheduled meetings through 2008-2009: the Danish government allocated $62 million for the two-week Copenhagen summit. In addition there were two previously scheduled two-week meetings in Bonn, Germany and one two-week ministerial session in Poznan, Poland.
What resulted from the frantic final hours of Copenhagen was an Accord negotiated in person by world leaders. While deeply flawed – it did not spell out how countries would prevent dangerous climate change except to seek to limit a rise in temperatures to below 2 degress celsius (3.6F) above pre-industrial times – the document made a useful contribution to financing, aiming to raise $100 billion annually for developing nations by 2020, and $10 billion a year from 2010-2012.
Is it now time to draw a curtain over the UN process? Supporters say that the UN deadline in Copenhagen led to the Accord, and add that a global problem such as climate change must be discussed in a UN forum where the poorest, most vulnerable countries have a voice.
The UN talks could continue to be used as a forum for a less ambitious effort to agree piecemeal steps, such as saving rainforests, rather than focusing on a global climate deal which is deadlocked on big issues.
Rapidly emerging economies like China and India argue that the rich have contributed most to the climate problem and so must do most to tackle it. Industrialised nations say that China and India will contribute most emissions in the future and so must now step up.
It may be that world leaders and ministers, meeting in streamlined sessions, could resolve such suspicions and agree what each must do. That process has already started, with G20 meetings of world leaders regularly addressing climate change, and sessions of the U.S.-led “major economies forum” (MEF) of 17 top emitters adding an extra layer of talks.
Some of the countries with strong opinions in the UN climate process – including Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba – are not major emitters. Saudi Arabia dislikes the threat that a climate response poses to oil demand, and some Latin American countries complain about the implied exclusivity of any talks which involve fewer than all the countries of the world.
It could be argued that the Accord is the main outcome of the UN process since signing the Kyoto Protocol 13 years ago. Yet in their latest, April 9-11 UN meeting in Bonn, some negotiators rejected any mention of it in their future work. The latest talks did agree to two additional, meetings at least a week long each in 2010, which the UN climate secretariat estimates will cost an average of $5 million each.
In the final session in Bonn on Sunday night old rifts dragged talks to 2am. Delegates spent hours on what seemed uncontroversial phrases in a new text, despite repeated pleas for a new spirit of compromise.
They argued for more than an hour, for instance, about a sentence saying they would “continue to work in an inclusive and transparent manner that adheres to the principles of the United Nations.”
Still deadlocked, they just deleted the sentence.
(Picture: A workman cleans the floor in the Bella Center in Copenhagen as negotiators worked through the night to form a draft text at the UN Climate Change Conference 2009 December 18, 2009. REUTERS/Bob Strong)