Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 17 August 2009

Homage paid to a Malaysian giant at the climate talks  

Chow Kok Kee’s sudden passing is a blow to the climate change community.  He was an outstanding chairman, he mobilized parties on the Kyoto Protocol, and was architect of the technology framework.  We will miss him as a delegate and a friend.


The United Nations Climate Change Convention last week paid homage to a Malaysian public official who has played a major role in building the Convention and raising public awareness of the global actions needed to tackle the world’s biggest environmental and survival threat.

Around a thousand people in the conference hall at the start of the Bonn climate talks on 10 August stood for some minutes in silence as a tribute to Mr. Chow Kok Kee, who passed away just a day before of a heart attack in his Kuala Lumpur house.

Chow was the Director General of the Malaysian Meteorological Department for many years until 2005.  He led the Malaysian delegation in the Convention, and was by all accounts a formidable negotiator and a most knowledgeable scientist. 

He served as Chair of the UNFCCC’s scientific and technological subsidiary body, and became Chair of the Expert Group on Technology Transfer in 2007.  This led to his being popularly called Chairman Chow in the climate circles.

His demise was announced by the Malaysian delegation, which described him as a leader, teacher, mentor and friend, as well as an indefatigable delegate who had contributed greatly to Malaysia as well as to the world.

Many moving speeches paying tribute to Chow’s many contributions to the Convention were made by high officials, including the Chairman of the Group of 77 and China, Ambassador Ibrahim of Sudan and the group’s coordinator Bernaditas Muller of the Philippines, the Chair of the Bali Action Plan climate talks, Michael Zammit, and the executive secretary of the Convention secretariat, Yvo de Boer.

Tributes were also paid by the United States, Japan, the European Union, Switzerland, Australia (which recounted how Chow also contributed to setting up the regional alert system on tsunami), the Africa Group and other developing countries.

“His sudden passing is a blow to the climate change community,” said Yvo de Boer. “He was an outstanding Chairman, he mobilized parties on the Kyoto Protocol, and was architect of the technology framework.  He will miss him as a delegate and a friend.”

Many delegates from Malaysia as well as other countries recounted how he would always be available to give leadership, advice and comments.  In the past two years, when he was not at the meetings, he would send a constant stream of email messages from Malaysia to various officials at various stages of the climate negotiations.

Only a few weeks ago, Chow had been a key resource person at workshops for negotiators in Kuala Lumpur and Thailand.  “I can’t imagine that he is gone, and I still expect his emails to keep coming,” said a senior UNFCCC secretariat official.

My own interest and knowledge in the climate negotiations was also significantly developed by Chow, who was extremely generous with his time in passing on his knowledge and insights.  

I remember three years ago how he explained to me the central elements in the Climate Convention which made it “friendly” to the developing countries, particularly its Article 4.7, that the extent to which developing countries take actions depends on the extent to which developed countries meet their commitments to provide finance and transfer technology to the developing countries.

This article, which was in recognition of the responsibility of developed countries since they caused most of the emissions in the atmosphere, was the heart of the Convention for Chow, who had become one of the world’s top experts on and architects of the UNFCCC.  A fact that all Malaysians can be proud of.

The climate talks last week yielded little new results, because most of the time was spent on understanding and tidying the 200-page draft text from which a much shorter version will have to be drafted for the big Copenhagen meeting in December.

One new issue that erupted last week was trade protectionism in the name of climate change.  Many developing countries voiced strong concerns about recent measures in developed countries that impose charges or taxes on imported goods coming from developing countries on the ground that these countries are not taking sufficient climate action.

This concern has been sparked by a domestic climate bill (known as the Waxman-Markey bill) that was recently passed by the US House of Representatives, which contains such a trade protectionist mechanism.

The developing countries view this as an attempt by the rich countries to escape from their obligations to assist developing countries, and instead impose penalties on them.

In a statement, the G77 and China raised the alarm that developed countries are designing trade-distorting measures (including border adjustment measures, carbon tariffs and carbon footprint labeling) which restrict the exports of developing countries and hinder their development. 

India and China, supported by many others, proposed new paragraphs for the Copenhagen text, that developed countries shall not resort to unilateral measures against goods and services imported from developing countries on grounds of protecting the climate.

Such unilateral measures would violate the principles and provisions of the Convention, warned India, which cited four clauses which would be violated.

The Secretariat also circulated a document showing by how much each developed country has so far publicly stated it was prepared to cut its emissions.  Its estimate is that excluding the United States, the aggregate reduction by the countries would only be only 13 to 20 per cent by 2020 (compared to 1990 levels).  If the US is included, the figure would be even lower.

This range is far below the demand by many groups of developing countries that the developed countries cut their emissions by at least 40 to 49 per cent by 2020 (compared to 1990).  

It is also below the 25-40% range mentioned by the inter-governmental panel on climate change (IPCC) and the 30% that the European Union said it would do if other developed countries would do the same.

With the trade protection measures coming up, the low emission reduction targets set by developed countries, and still nothing in sight on their transfer of finance and technology, the situation does not look bright at all.