07 December, 2011

Muddling-through on climate change

Sergio Abranches, from Durban

COPs look all alike, regardless the sometimes radical change of their environment, from freezing streets to sunny beach promenades. Their first week, called “technical segment” looks pretty much like their second week, called the high-level segment. The difference? The second week is more crowded, and ‘politicos’, having ministerial rank, take charge of negotiations. To expedite a solution they tend to set technical considerations aside and focus on the wording of resolutions that might appear significant enough to justify calling them an “agreement”, a “roadmap”, a “plan for action”, or a “process”. 

COP17 high level segment started yesterday in Durban with a call for action from all speakers, from the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon to South African president, Jacob Zuma. But it seems the parties to the Climate Convention are not ready for action. They’ll choose ‘process’ over action. The final outcome will very likely be a downsized second period of commitment under the Kyoto Protocol, covering about 15% of global emissions, and a ‘process’ to guide negotiations to a post-2020 legally-binding agreement, to cover more than 80% of global emissions. Intense negotiations by the ‘politicos’ are trying to break the many interconnected gridlocks to make this happen.

By mid-week, last week, negotiators of the so-called technical segment were hopeful they’d be able to close a package deal to make the Cancun agreements fully operational. The ‘Cancun Package’ should deliver a fully operational Green Climate Fund, with assurance from donor countries that cash deposits would be forthcoming in the first weeks of 2012; financial and  policy mechanisms to support adaptation of developing countries to climate change; put in place a Technology Center and Network ready to start operations; set up a global accounting system for greenhouse gas emissions and a mechanism for the reporting and evaluation of parties’ emissions reduction pledges. But last Friday it was clear they’d failed to close the package deal.

Intense negotiations on these ‘technical’ matters continue, while negotiators keep trying to solve the major political hurdle of this COP17. The hurdle? How to ensure a second period of commitment under the Kyoto Protocol, even though a quite lean one, and how to move on towards the dreamed goal of having a rules-based agreement binding all major emitters, developed and developing. Parties want this “second KP”, as they call it because it would keep alive the legal structure and the operational mechanisms for finance and technological cooperation that are a part of the Protocol. Its contribution to the fight against climate change, though, would be a modest one. The second round of commitments will make legally-binding the pledges to reduce emissions made in Copenhagen by the countries that are a party to it, and reaffirmed in Cancun under the track of the Climate Convention.

The future treaty should replace the Kyoto Protocol, the Copenhagen Accord, and the Cancun Agreement by 2020. As anyone who browses COPs agendas will immediately see these issues are not new at all. COP 11, in Montreal, in 2005, created the “ad hoc working group” (AWG-KP) to decide on the second period of commitment under the Kyoto Protocol. The ‘Bali Action Plan’ decided at COP 13, in 2007, to create the “ad hoc working group” (AWG-LCA) to undertake “a comprehensive process to enable the full, effective and sustained implementation of the Convention through long-term cooperative action, now, up to and beyond 2012”. The decision also determined that the working group should “complete its work in 2009 and present the outcome” to the COP15, in Copenhagen. In other words, a ‘process’ was defined to lead the working group to propose the draft of a legally-binding agreement that should be approved by the parties at COP15, in Copenhagen, in 2009.

Neither group has fulfilled its mandate. COP15 failed to decide on both issues, and the mandate of the two working groups was extended for one more year, so that they could report to COP16, in Cancun. Negotiators in Cancun did little more than make the Copenhagen Accord official, by bringing its decisions into the UN negotiating tracks, and to fill in a bit more of detail on the ‘work in progress’ towards a second period of  commitment under the Kyoto Protocol, and a future binding agreement. Sure, the mandates of the two working groups were again extended until COP17, in Durban.

We are now at COP17, in Durban, and the best scenario for the outcome taking shape here would be a second period of commitment under the Kyoto Protocol, with fewer parties signing into it, than those who agreed to the first one. This ‘second KP’ would cover about 15% of global emissions, down from the 26% covered by the ‘first KP’. Parties will obviously cheer the full accomplishment of the mandate given to the ‘ad hoc working group’, and praise the work done by its chairs, and co-chairs, and all the parties who ‘constructively’ contributed to the successful closing of their work. From what they’ve been saying on side events and press conferences so will a good part of the environmentalists here in Durban. On the future treaty, COP17 would likely decide on “a comprehensive process to enable” the drafting of a comprehensively legally-binding agreement to be in force no later than 2020. There level of ambitions has been significantly lowered by both governments and many environmentalist organizations. The present level of ambitions may be more realistic. This outcome is nevertheless very frustrating, and severely enlarges the gap between commitments to action and the scientific requirements to meet the climate change challenge.

Connie Hedegaard, EU Commissioner for Climate Action, has said on the official opening of the high level segment that the EU is ready to take a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. But, she added, the EU must be assured that others will agree on a new legally binding framework. Framework, not agreement, one should be reminded.

The best-case scenario has become one in which the EU and a few other countries sign into a ‘second KP’, and the other major parties agree to ‘framework’, with some comfortable deadlines.

There is a worst-case scenario, but they’ll work hard to prevent it from happening. If it nevertheless prevails, a group of parties demanding more concrete results might not be happy with just a ‘framework’, and with the looks of the ‘Cancun Package’, and would rather veto a decision. If this ‘kamikaze’ attitude is interpreted by the presidency as ‘lack of consensus or unanimity’, the ‘second KP’ might become a ‘unilateral declaration’ by parties; and the ‘future agreement’ would remain a rather fuzzy promise.

When unable to agree on a decision, negotiators use to write the clauses under brackets. If one peruses the “amalgamation document” with the views of parties on a future agreement, one will see the same brackets at the same places for about five years. There has been no major breakthrough on relevant issues.

Decisions are not forthcoming even on what has already been decided before, requiring only a few relatively simple operational details to be implemented. That’s what is holding the implementation on finance, technology, and adaptation. On the transparency regime, brackets tell us they can’t even decide whether accounting will have a ‘framework’ or a ‘system’. On the Green Climate Fund they are struggling to determine whether it will work under the ‘guidance’ or under the ‘authority’ of the COP.

How to explain this resilience of the status quo ante, COP after COP, this slow incremental progress of political decisions aiming at a global climate change governance regime? They all know the science. They all know they’re dealing with a global threat. Most of the countries that are parties to the Climate Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, have faced some hardship caused by extreme climate events. They are all implementing carbon reducing policies at home. Most know how urgent it is to achieve a level of cooperation among high emitters to act together to cut emissions. And all of them would acknowledge that on their press conferences. But they all behave conservatively in the conference rooms. They are still captured the the dominant interests of the high carbon economy. But there are other domestic forces already interested to move towards a low carbon economy. Market forces are changing, and social support to change is already a majority of public opinion in most countries. Public opinion has not turned into active political opinion yet. However, on balance, most governments have more room to change policies today than governments had ten years ago. Yet they are still resistant to change views in multilateral negotiations.

EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard complained on her twitter @CHedegaardEU that “sometimes messages are more progressive at public press conferences than in negotiation rooms…”

A journalist asked UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon yesterday if there is something wrong about the UN process, given that the parties are dealing with the same deadlocks for years. He said there is nothing wrong with the UN process. Negotiators are dealing with difficult decisions for their countries. Sometimes member countries the political will to move forward, he argued.

There is, however, something deadly wrong about the UN process, and not only on UNFCCC. The Security Council has been criticized for not being able to adequately deal with global security issues. A thorough UN reform has been on the agenda for years to no avail. The UN has become a machine that works almost always on low gears, having enormous difficulty to deliver meaningful and prompt decisions. Its rules are end up by maintaining the status quo, rather than promoting change. Even its own reform tends to stall.

The UN decision-making process is based either on an unanimity rule, the case of the UNFCCC, or on a regime of “selective veto power”, as in the Security Council. The unanimity rule gives, in principle, a veto power to all parties, since any country’s positive vote becomes pivotal for a decision to be made. In the case of the Security Council, a few countries have veto power since the times of the Cold War. This distribution of veto power didn’t change, although global geopolitics has thoroughly changed since the 1980’s at the very least.

The United States, one of the beneficiaries of the immutable status quo in the Security Council, strongly criticizes the ‘1992 division between developed and developing countries’, arguing that domestic and global realities changed very much, and this firewall is no longer acceptable.

China, is perfectly comfortable to be treated as a full power in the Security Council and as a developing country under the UNFCCC. This means it has the same voice as the major developed powers, and benefits from a veto power several developed countries don’t have, when deciding on global security matters. But it can, at the same time, demand differentiated obligations regarding global climate security, as a member of G77+China. Washington, and most of the EU, would like China to be treated as a full power both at the Security Council and at the UNFCCC. Connie Hedegaard referred today to the “real developing” countries, meaning of course that that are countries that are no longer truly “developing”. They belong to an intermediate category of emerging powers, China on the topmost position.

We live in a changing world. There are new threats to global security, that go far beyond the nuclear threat of Cold War times. Several studies show that climate change has become a major threat to global security. Yet the UN rules ‘freeze’ the players into outdated positions. The players’ stakes in decision-making do not match their real stakes regarding present global threats. An uneven playing field and rules that multiply veto players make it extraordinarily difficult to change the status quo. They contribute to maintain the status quo, or what, in the language of climate change modeling would be called ‘business as usual’. The reference used in the  IPCC scenarios, for instance, to determine the likely consequences of no new action is ‘business as usual’, aka the status quo. Yet the rules of global climate change politics strengthen the resilience of the status quo. They favor a ‘business as usual’ attitude.

Action to meet the climate change challenge will hardly come from the UNFCCC decision-making. The Climate Convention will always reflect with some delay what countries are already doing domestically. A ‘top down’ approach is unlikely to ever meet the scientific requirements for global climate change policy, especially if countries are doing less than science tells them they would need to do. Besides, some countries resist to write into an international treaty even what they are doing domestically. This is the case of both the US and China.

China has been doing more domestically that it has pledged to do in Copenhagen. One can no longer infer China’s progress on curbing emissions and building a low-carbon economy from what Chinese negotiators do and say at the Climate Convention.  It would be no sacrifice for China to write its Copenhagen pledges, officially reaffirmed in Cancun, into a multilateral legally-binding instrument. As it would not be any harder for China to review these targets upwards by 2015.

The United States is in a more awkward situation. Brazil and China can say their Copenhagen/Cancun commitments are legally-binding domestically, because they are a part of their climate change laws. The US Congress failed to approve such a law. US negotiators impose several conditions to move forward, but offer very little as a quid pro quo. The US senate is known to be very reluctant to ratify international treaties. It has refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and negotiators can do nothing to assure the other parties a new treaty would be ratified. All US negotiators can say is that their Copenhagen/Cancun commitments are “politically and morally” binding. Todd Stern, US lead negotiator said that much on his press conference today.

The structural political foundations of the UN system do not enable the parties to the Climate Convention to decide on effective and urgent action to face risks created by climate change. Why it would still be advisable to keep the UNFCCC alive and working? First of all, because it has value as a place to consolidate an institutional framework that could lay the foundations for a future regime for climate change governance. This regime will come from a bottom up process whereby increasingly more robust domestic climate change policies are incorporated into UNFCCC’s system of rules. Decisions on domestic policies will  come faster than consensus can be built at COP plenaries. Secondly, the UNFCCC provides an important environment for global political interaction, promoting tolerance towards the diversity of points of view, arguments, and cultural references. It  exposes parties to each others’ realities and  enhances solidarity.

One could say that the UNFCCC belongs to the pre-history of a cosmopolitan global democracy, supporting the global governance of several key global issues, especially climate change. This regime of governance without government will benefit from this pluralist environment with some capacity to prevent extreme positions and reduce radical polarizations that tend to cause systemic breakdowns.

Tags: , , , , , ,