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Stuck in the slow lane but UN climate talks still matter

Foreign Policy Centre research associate Stephen Minas lays out the disagreements standing in the way of a global climate deal that world leaders hope to reach in Paris in 2015.

The latest round of United Nations climate change negotiations, held in Bonn last week, demonstrated why this long-running process is slow, frustrating, but necessary.

Negotiators were set the task of signing off on draft texts for December’s ministerial-level meeting in Lima, but hopes that this could be achieved were quickly stymied as national blocs divided along familiar lines.

Amid widespread acknowledgment by negotiators and observers that not enough progress had been made, attention turned to what the ongoing disagreements over content and process meant for the prospects of a new global climate deal slated to be struck in late 2015 in Paris.

The Lima meeting is meant to lay the groundwork for the end-of-2015 summit in Paris. As a key step ahead of the Paris negotiation, nations must submit ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDCs) to demonstrate what climate action they are prepared to take.

These should be lodged by the first quarter of next year, but last week’s meeting ended with parties still deadlocked over what these contributions should include.

Key developed countries see the INDCs as ‘fundamentally about mitigation’ (in the words of Canada’s representative). Developing nations want the INDCs to include adaptation and (from developed nations) climate finance.

The BASIC bloc of Brazil, South Africa, India and China slammed the latest draft on INDCs as ‘unbalanced and selective’. Parties also split over how the INDC requirements of developed and developing countries should differ. Other remaining areas of uncertainty include how to ramp up pre-2020 climate action and the legal form that the Paris deal will take. The ministers who travel to Lima will be busy.

The ongoing inability of this negotiation to deliver what the scientific consensus says is necessary points to structural problems. The climate talks are hampered by their format and face the challenge of making a key principle of the 1992 UN climate convention – the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBDR) of developed and developing countries to deal with climate change– work in a changed global economy.

The format of the main negotiating sessions – the recital of statements by a succession of representatives of national blocs and individual nations on a given agenda item – lends itself to the repetitive reading of universally known positions into the record.

A lot of this is merely declaratory. As Singapore’s representative noted four days in: ‘We’re not yet negotiating per se.’

Much of the actual negotiation happens in smaller groups off the conference floor. But here, too, the delegates are constrained by their instructions. The officials who met in Bonn last week largely cannot make political decisions to compromise on major sticking points.

The CBDR challenge is more significant. The CBDR principle has entrenched different mitigation requirements for developed and developing countries based on 1992 levels of national development.

A rigid application of CBDR is increasingly out of step with the realities of the global climate challenge. There is, for example, growing acknowledgment even among developing countries that emissions in China and India, in particular, will need to be dramatically lower than ‘business-as-usual’ projections if dangerous climate change is to be prevented.

As the only climate forum in which all the world’s nations are represented, the UNFCCC has a unique role to play. In particular, as adaptation to the effects of climate change becomes an urgent challenge for many of the world’s poorest nations, the voices of those most affected must be heard.

So the process has its problems. But none of this is to suggest that the UN talks should be abandoned. On the contrary, they are indispensable.

In criticising the ‘us-versus-them’ climate negotiations, well-known US economist Jeffrey Sachs, recently urged greater focus on cooperation to develop low-carbon technologies.

This is surely desirable, but as the only climate forum in which all the world’s nations are represented, the UNFCCC has a unique role to play. In particular, as adaptation to the effects of climate change becomes an urgent challenge for many of the world’s poorest nations, the voices of those most affected must be heard.

The UNFCCC process has spurred a huge amount of valuable policy and technical work. It has coaxed other international agencies out of their silos and got them working on a common agenda.

The process is also becoming more inclusive of subnational governments, following the efforts of Michael Bloomberg, Bill Clinton and others to put cities at the frontline as key contributors to the low-carbon transition.

For all the frustrations of last week, there were signs of negotiators thinking creatively to find a way through.

Brazil’s delegation proposed ‘concentric’ circles of differentiation, under which developing countries would make increasingly strong climate commitments. This may sound arcane, but it represents an attempt to break free of the binary distinction between developed and developing nations and attracted much interest last week.

The European Union’s decision to cut its emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030 from the 1990 level, following a difficult negotiation among member states, is a challenge to other parties to pick up the pace.

Business, civil society, researchers and other stakeholders should redouble their engagement in the UN climate process, building on what many have described as the positive exchanges of last month’s climate summit in New York.

International agreement can complement and build upon cooperation between major emitters, national and subnational initiatives, intra-firm regulation and standards. It is a challenge of coordination.

With the current negotiation centring on ‘bottom-up’, iterative national pledges, the Paris summit will not result in a ‘final’ global deal that will provide the private sector with certainty. Policy will remain subject to variation. As International Relations academic Robert Falkner has argued, ‘differentiation and flexibility in national commitments will be the price to pay for a climate agreement that includes all major emitters’.

‘Paris’ is now being freighted with the same hopes as ‘Copenhagen’ six years earlier. With the warnings of the scientific community growing ever louder, the onus is on all participants to make this process work.

Stephen Minas is a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre, a UK-based thinktank.

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