Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 22 February 2010

Climate politics hots up

Last week the head of the United Nations' climate body resigned, while the Chinese Premier asserted the primacy of the UN and not some other forum for conducting climate talks this year.


It's been another interesting week for global climate politics.  Last Thursday saw the resignation of Mr. Yvo de Boer from his post of head of the secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body that is guardian to the climate regime comprising the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol.

De Boer is often described as the UN's top official on climate change, and so he is, except that the UN Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki-Moon has become so involved himself that he seems to have taken over the driver's seat.

In Copenhagen last December, Yvo de Boer was for two weeks supervising the UNFCCC's multilateral negotiations in which all 192 countries  could take part, while in the last two days Ban Ki Moon was sitting in with 28 heads of governments in the Conference's secretive side event.

The Conference adopted two working groups' reports, which are meant to be the main basis for further negotiations this year, leading hopefully to a final climate deal.

On the other hand, the small group of leaders came up with a three-page Copenhagen Accord, that is supposed to give political guidance.  But the Accord failed to get adopted, unlike the other two documents.

Now a battle is taking place behind the scenes on whether the UNFCCC's two reports take precedence, or the Accord that never got adopted but which many developed countries are aggressively promoting to become the basis of a new climate agreement.

Those that prefer the UNFCCC documents want the Convention's two working groups to resume work as soon as possible.  But some Western countries promoting the Accord seem to want it to have a life of its own, to be the basis of a new process in a small group like the G20.  If and when the small group makes a deal, it will then be passed on to the others to accept.

As chief of the UNFCCC secretariat, Yvo de Boer must have been caught in the middle of this battle.  His term was to have completed in September, but he will now leave in July.  Some newspapers have portrayed his resignation as casting another layer of gloom on the chances of getting a climate deal this year.  

But a more important factor will be the attitude of major players, especially the United States, China, India and Europe, towards the venue and the contents of the negotiations.

Behind the procedures are key questions of substance.  The UNFCCC reports are based on the premise that there will be a binding and science-based overall target set for developed countries to cut their emissions, somewhere between 25 and 49 per cent by 2020 compared to 1990.  And each developed country will also have a binding national target.  All these national targets will add up collectively to the overall target.

The Accord has the opposite approach.  There is no overall target.  Each developed country is free to set its own target, which is not binding.  There is no longer an international discipline.

Critics of the Accord fear that this voluntary pledge system will not result in the deep cuts that science says is required.  And true enough, the individual pledges given add up to only a 13-19 per cent cut by 2020 compared to 1990, far less than the 25 to over 40% required.

A study by the Sustainability Institute estimates that the Accord's pledges are in line with a 3.9 degree celsius temperature rise, which would have catastrophic effects.  Limiting global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees is needed to avoid disaster.

The best, indeed the only venue to discuss all the issues is the UNFCCC.  Those who advocate the Accord's voluntary approach can propose it in the UNFCCC's working groups, and those that have another approach (international disciplines with an overall target and individual country targets) can have their say.

However the United States' top climate negotiators have indicated they do not like the UNFCCC as the forum and suggested using the G20 instead.

The views of China and three other big developing countries (India, Brazil, South Africa) are important as their leaders finalised the Accord together with US President Barrack Obama on Copenhagen's last day.

Thus the release last week of a letter from the Chinese Premier, Mr. Wen Jiabao, to Mr Ban Ki-Moon  is important.  Wen affirmed China's stand that the climate talks should take place under the UNFCCC.  "It is neither viable nor acceptable to start a new negotiation process outside the framework of the Convention and the Protocol”, he said.

Wen also stressed that the two working groups under the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol "are the legal bodies for such negotiations", and the draft texts proposed by the Chairs of those working groups in the December climate conference in Copenhagen are "the legitimate basis".

It is evident that the Premier's letter is striving to strike a balance between his country's support for the Accord while putting it in its proper place within the continuing UNFCCC negotiations and documents.

Thus Wen says that the Accord's “great political significance” is for its helping the UNFCCC's  negotiations that started in Bali to produce outcomes.  And this political aspect compares with the UNFCCC groups as the legal bodies for negotiations and UNFCCC texts as the “legitimate basis” for the negotiations.

This letter is not the last word on the subject, because the US and Europe will keep up their pressure on China and other developing countries to accept the Accord as the basis and framework for a new agreement.

Behind the surface fight over venues and documents is the real battle over who should take what shares and types of responsibilities for cutting or curbing emissions, and who should bear the costs of avoiding and adapting to climate change.

Since climate change is such as serious and even Life-threatening problem, the political wrangling  going on also has great significance.

Hopefully a fair process will be agreed on, to facilitate talks that should ideally be conducted in a spirit of goodwill, so that there can be results by this year.