Global Trends by Martin Khor

18 February 2008

One more step in the climate debate

Last week, the United Nations General Assembly held its first debate on climate change after the historic Bali conference.  Another step forward, but the complexity of the issues involved was also evident.


Last week I took part as a panelist in a “thematic debate” at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on how the world and the UN are addressing the climate change crisis.

It was the first major UN meeting on climate change since the eventful Bali climate conference last December at which governments pledged to take more serious action to tackle this most serious survival problem.

From promises to serious commitment and from that to real action are many steps, which may or may not be taken.  More complex is who should do what, and how much should each do?

The developed countries, led by the Europeans, are very keen that every country act as soon as possible, with rich countries doing more to cut Greenhouse Gas emissions but developing countries also pitching in.

On the other hand, the developing countries are of the view that they have the right to develop, that they will do something too, but they need lots of help with finance and technology from the rich countries, in order to tackle climate change, without affecting their economy.

The truth is that the rich countries have to overhaul their production and energy systems and lifestyles if we are to stand a chance of success.  And developing countries can grow but must change their development pattern to be ecological and downgrade luxuries in favour of fulfilling people’s basic needs. That calls for a lot of change, inside each country, and in international relations.

At the UN meeting, on 11-13 February, the President of General Assembly, Srgjan Kerim of Macedonia, acknowledged climate change is not just an environmental issue.  “We need to reconcile the economic aspirations of developing countries with the necessity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The challenge is to find policies, instruments and technologies that can create low-carbon economies which promote sustainable economic growth.”

The UN Secretary General, Mr Ban Ki-moon, stressed that if 2007 was the year climate change rose to top of the global agenda, 2008 is the time for concerted action.

“Developed countries need to clearly lead. The more ambitious cuts by developed countries, the more we can expect from developing countries. The more developing countries are engaged, the more developed countries are willing to act,” he stressed.

The Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, said there were two pre-conditions for successful climate talks in future.  First, the US must set real and binding emission reduction targets, which can be done, as his own city authority has shown.

The second pre-condition is “for developing countries to commit too”, for example China and India must have energy efficiency standards.   

In the panel on partnerships, that I took part in, Dr Youba Sokono, executive secretary of the Sahara and Sahel Observatory, stressed that on adaptation to climate, people could not afford to wait.  “We need to move from reaction to planned adaptation.  Solidarity is also needed as a basis for partnership.”

Representing the Third World Network, I agreed that partnerships should be based on solidarity and collaboration based on good faith.   The Kyoto Protocol must be supported, and the first task is to correct the misconception that it expires in 2012 and must be replaced.

What is expiring is the first commitment period (for emission cuts) of the developed countries, and this is to be followed by a second commitment period for which negotiations are already taking place.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol should be defended as they contain good principles such as that developed countered must take the lead and developing countries will act to the extent that the developed countries meet their finance and technology commitments.

The post-Bali process should firstly focus on implementation of existing commitments, as the performance is poor. The developed countries have to meet their emission targets and their technology and finance obligations (which have not been fulfilled), if developing countries are to have confidence that they will be assisted.

On technology, the intellectual property issue had to be addressed if developing countries are to have access to affordable technology. The new sustainable development pathways have also to be worked out in detail.

Fiona Harvey of the Financial Times said that some businesses were engaged in “greenwash”, claiming to do more than they are. And in a lunch talk, Sir Richard Branson, Chair of the Virgin Group, called on the UN to establish a “war room” to fight climate change.

The following two days saw Ministers and senior officials of over a hundred countries presenting their views. 

Malaysia, represented by Datuk Fatimah Raya Nasron, Deputy Secretary-General of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, said the climate challenge can be met only if it is seen as an issue of development, rather than its own. 

Technology transfer is closely tied to the private sector’s role and intellectual property rights.   “Unless some relaxation of IPRs is allowed, such transfer may prove to be impossible because of the high costs involved.  The UN system should explore the use of partnerships to make such transfers possible,” said Fatimah.

As new capital assets will triple between 2000 and 2030, the UN should make efforts to direct investment and financial flows towards technology that is more environmentally friendly to ensure countries do not get locked into unclean technology in the decades to come, Malaysia added.

On 31 March to 4 April, the first meeting of the UNFCCC’s talks on “long-term cooperative action” to address climate change, will take place in Bangkok.  It will set the terms of reference of discussions on the actions the governments will commit to do.