22 September, 2009

NY Climate Summit: not a breakthrough, but one step ahead towards sealing the deal.

The future of the Copenhagen deal is in part being played today in New York City. The Climate Summit has already gained diplomatic significance.

Sergio Abranches

President Barack Obama was the first head of state to speak, and it was his first UN speech. He made a forceful motivational speech, addressing no specifics, and making no binding commitments. He also did not advance guidelines for breaking the deadlock.

Chinese President, Hu Jintao, made a rare appearance at a UN Summit, and his speech, although falling short of expectations, signaled some progress on China’s position.

But, frankly, one shouldn’t expect too much from an opening public speech at a UN summit. Such occasions serve motivational, advertising, and political objectives, on that order.

President Obama stayed at the motivational goals most of the time. He did advertise a few initiatives his Administration has already taken, and sent a discrete message to Congress. He spoke to the global audience as well as to his audience at home. It was an opening political, and diplomatic speech, not a closing statement.

President Hu Jintao’s intention was to signal China’s propensities towards sealing a meaningful deal in Copenhagen.

He sketched China’s new plan to curb carbon emissions that includes “national targets”, and announced measures to cut emissions per unit of GDP “by a notable margin by 2020, from the 2005 level”. He failed to give specific figures regarding both national targets and carbon intensity reductions. He said that China would substantially increase its forest cover, invest in climate-friendly technologies and renewable energy sources. He also set some limits: “We need to combine our efforts to combat climate change with efforts at growth in developing nations.”

At the diplomatic level, Hu’s appearance should not be underestimated. It was a gesture that marks the day when climate change has become a top issue on the Chinese agenda, both at the domestic and diplomatic levels.

Neither President Obama’s presence should be underplayed. One of the most significant moments of this summit will be when he and Hu Jintao get together to discuss a common ground for their action on the next steps of the climate negotiation.

Another first was the speech of the new Japanese Prime-minister, Yukio Hatoyama. He showed a clear intention of leading Japan towards a more prominent role in global politics. He stated the goal of reducing his country’s emissions by 25% from 1990 levels by 2020. He also said the developed countries should lead the endeavor to tackle the climate change challenge.

President Sarkozy proposed a new summit, in November, before Copenhagen, as one more opportunity to work out impasses, and gradually break the deadlock. If accepted, the second half of this year will be entirely taken by climate change diplomacy, another sign that the issue is gaining momentum. From New York, the most relevant players will move to Pittsburgh to discuss the next steps of economic recovery, and climate change. In November, they could meet again, if Sarkozy’s suggestion is accepted. And get together one last time, in Copenhagen, the following December, as Prime-minister Gordon Brown has  already proposed, to work out the last knots and seal the deal.

This is how diplomatic deadlocks are resolved. By occupying center stage on the agenda of the great powers, and major stakeholders, both developed and emerging, and by engaging their leaders on a continuing, tirelessly negotiation.

Realistically speaking, I’d say that the New York Climate Summit will not be a breakthrough. But it will probably lead to some progress in the understanding of major players’ common objective, distinct interests, and political propensities. It will also help to set the limits of each, and clarify how different contributions can add up to a deal strictly within the required scientific parameters.

Nobody with an understanding of the limits and possibilities of real politics has really considered the possibility of a deal with equal obligations from all. There will be an inevitable unequal sharing of the global burden.

The deal will have to make room for these differentiated responsibilities, while keeping the bar at the level determined by the scientific parameters for emissions reductions. Sharing the burden in different proportions doesn’t mean doing less than the maximum within each country’s capacity, nor shifting the burden to others.

Commitments and burden-sharing won’t be frozen in time. The deal should provide mechanisms to redefine responsibilities and targets as the domestic and global circumstances evolve, and taking into account actual achievements at pre-defined time intervals.

Tags: , , , ,