19 December, 2012

The Climate Convention has lost relevance and hinders local initiatives

Sergio Abranches

A balance of the decisions made at the Climate Convention (UNFCCC) since Bali, in 2007, would show that there has been little more than formal progress. The most concrete outcome so far has been the result of the frustrated COP15 held in Copenhagen, in 2009. Large emitters outside the Kyoto Protocol have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions for the first time. Among them The United States, China, India, and Brazil.

They presented modest emissions reduction targets, considering their contribution to past (U.S.), present, and future emissions (all). But these commitments have, nevertheless, a political and symbolic meaning, because it was the first time these countries have formally admitted to take emissions reduction goals within a multilateral framework.  The Copenhagen Summit, ended abruptly with the exit of the political leaders, and the Copenhagen Agreement was not adopted by the Convention plenary session. It thus remained outside the framework of the Climate Convention. This inconsistency of the status of an agreement closed by the most important world leaders of the time was solved by the Cancun Agreements of 2010. Negotiators agreed to incorporate the Copenhagen decisions in the text of the new agreements thus making them legal. Now the commitments to reduce emissions are legal, under an international law, although not binding. There are no mechanisms for reporting, monitoring, and verifying these emissions. There is no accountability to them. In Durban, last year, negotiators have approved a second period of commitment for the Kyoto Protocol, although even less representative of bigger emitters than the first one. The new addendum to the Protocol will hardly cover more than 13% of global carbon emissions. Some analysts see the maintenance of its legal framework as an important gain, because it might serve as the basis for a new and more encompassing global agreement in the future. The Kyoto Protocol has been and continues to be irrelevant, as far as climate change is concerned. Although legally binding it also lacks mechanisms of enforcement and does not ensure the accountability of the pledges.

In Durban it was decided that this year the two workgroups that have centralized climate change negotiations for more than a decade should finish their job. The group in charge of negotiating a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol has finished its job, by delivering a weaker protocol, and by leaving some important questions unresolved. The group in charge of long-term action, and drafting a new global agreement closed shop by just forwarding key unresolved issues to the plenary of the parties. The second period of commitment for the Kyoto Protocol will make no real difference. The drafting of a new global treaty, or protocol, binding all big carbon emitters has been postponed to 2015, to be in force by 2020. This had been already decided in Durban, last year. Thus delayed, the agreement risks making no difference either. COP18, in Doha, this year, was a clear failure. Some analysts contend it wasn’t a total failure only because it avoided the collapse of the UNFCCC process. An argument that was also used to justify not declaring the Copenhagen, Cancun, and Durban meetings a complete failure.

It is this somber balance of many COPs (conferences of the parties do the Climate Convention) that is leading experts and scientists to ask for the end, of these meetings or, at the very least, that they be convened every five years or so. Their argument is that deadlock and muddle-through are preventing building new momentum for climate change action. Some also say that the goal of limiting global warming to just 2 degrees Celsius has become much too central. This goal is likely no longer attainable, and the focus on emissions reductions has inhibited more significant action to protect societies from unavoidable effects of ongoing climate change, i.e. adaptation.

The point that we should pay less attention to reductions of emissions, and invest more on preparedness to inevitable climate change makes sense. My problem is not with the need to prepare our nations to inevitable extreme climate events. We must do it. What is highly debatable is the argument which some defending this point are making, that investment in preparedness should replace investment on emissions, because the former that can be quicker, cheaper, and more effective. These actions should be complementary and viewed as equally necessary goals. Otherwise this point would amount to surrendering to the inevitability of extreme climate change.

The goal of reducing carbon emissions has been delayed by deadlock and muddling-through at the UNFCCC, but it cannot be abandoned. We should continue to aim at building a low carbon society. Delayed decisions at the Climate Convention have been used as an excuse for inaction. The transition to a low carbon society will hardly come out of these negotiations. To move the focus to domestic decision-making does indeed make sense. To invest more political and financial resources on local action, and to abandon expectations of timely decision from Climate summits is a sensible advise, provided we push for a twofold policy strategy. One which the main purpose is moving towards a low carbon society, while adapting our countries to the ill effects of inevitable climate change.

UNFCCC negotiations will hardly deliver an ambitious and both politically and legally strong accord. They’ll always decide only what has already decided at home. They’ll always aim at the common ground among domestic decisions. Every critical decision will be first made and adopted domestically prior to becoming a commitment at the international level. Only domestic policy-making will bring real change. So the main focus of political pressure, and civic action, should be domestic rather than international. But global civil society cannot abstain from acting at the global arenas. Climate change is a global threat, although solutions are only viable at the domestic front to begin with. Nevertheless we will need a future framework for global climate governance. It is not the case of abandoning any of the issues or leaving any of the arenas. It is the case for redeployment of resources, and redirection of the focus of major political activity towards domestic politics, without leaving the global arena.


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