Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 20 December 2010

Next year's battle will be more uphill

The ramifications of the Cancun conference for people and the climate will be felt for years and the battle for fair deal next year will be uphill.


Now that the dust is settling from the climate conference in Cancun, it is sobering to analyse its results.  In both content and process, it will have ramifications for years to come.

Many commentators have given the verdict that the multilateral system was saved, but not the climate.  They were referring to the avoidance of another collapse, following last year's disaster at Copenhagen.

But I heard an even sharper version of this view from a diplomat as he was leaving the Cancun airport last Monday: “We saved the system but we sacrificed the climate and the people.”

If this were true, it would be a strange and self-contradictory result indeed.  It reminded me of a saying by a foreign soldier in a war in an Asian country: “We burned the village in order to save it.”

Climate change is leading to the worst environmental disaster the world has known. This calls for increased global regulation, with the richest countries doing the most to curb their emissions and coming under the most binding regime.  The developing countries, most of which are still at the start of their industrialisation, would do their best, aided by financial and technology transfers.     

That was the bargain in Bali in 2007, when the latest round of climate talks began. By Cancun, however, the developed countries' commitment to take the lead had dwindled.  Unbelievably, at a time when they should be doing more, they were plotting to dismantle the only legally-binding regime, the Kyoto Protocol, and preparing in its place a non-binding national pledge system in which they would volunteer to do whatever they choose.

The Kyoto system agreed to for this round has a top-down approach of first determining the developed countries' aggregate emission cut, based on what the science requires, and having each country to commit, with the total of national commitments having to match the aggregate.  At Bali it was agreed that all developed countries (including the United States, which is not a Kyoto member) would make a comparable effort.

The European countries say they prefer to retain the Kyoto Protocol.  But they won't remain in it alone.  Other countries want to shift from Kyoto's regulated system to a loose system of pledges, without the top-down aggregate and the comparability principle.

Cancun did not decide on this titanic battle of models of action once and for all.  But it gave a great advantage to the voluntary pledge model.  In laid the groundwork for establishing this model and thus made possible the demise and replacement of the Kyoto Protocol.  And with that, the crumbling of the foundation of the architecture agreed to at the Bali climate conference.

It weakened in operational terms the cornerstone principles of equity and “common but differentiated responsibilities” by blurring the careful distinctions between the different levels of obligations of developed and developing countries in their respective mitigation efforts to combat emissions.

Why is it said that the climate was sacrificed?  Because the loosening of regulation of developed countries' emissions is likely to lead to less efforts on their part just at the time when more efforts are needed.

Their individual pledges add up to an emissions cut of only 16% (taking the high end of the pledges) or an increase (not decrease) of 6% (taking the low end), when they should be cutting by at least 25-50 per cent (by 2020 compared to 1990).

With these pledges, and those of some developing countries, made under the Copenhagen Accord, the world is on track for a temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees by century's end.  A 2 degree rise is considered dangerous enough, so many scientists and most countries are now advocating a 1.5 degree limit.  It is impossible to envisage living in a 3 degree world, let alone 5 degrees.

Why was it said that the people were sacrificed?   Because the majority of the world's people, living in developing countries, are now asked to take on the burden of adjustment.  Having given up the regulated top-down approach for their own emission cuts, the developed countries focused in Cancun to shift the burden onto developing countries.

Of course the developing countries must play their part, and many of them have announced plans to lower the emissions intensity of their GNP, provided they are provided the promised funds and technology to do the job. And also provided the rich countries take the lead play by cutting their own very high emissions.

At Cancun, the highest pressure was put on getting developing countries to take on obligations, even more than was agreed to in Bali..  They are now obliged to put forward their plans and targets for climate mitigation, which are to be compiled in documents to be regularly updated.

It is a first step in a plan to get them to place mitigation targets in national schedules, similar to the tariff or services schedules in the World Trade Organisation.  The aim is to eventually get them to be as binding as the targets of developed countries. 

The Cancun text also obliges developing countries to report on their national emissions and mitigation actions every 2 years.  These reports (on mitigation actions, details of emissions, analysis of impacts, methodologies and assumptions, progress on implementation, etc.) are to be subjected to scrutiny by other countries and international experts.

These are all new obligations, and were the most important outcome of Cancun, together with the downgrading of developed countries' own obligations.

The Cancun conference also agreed text also agreed to achieve the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible, with the time-frame to be worked out within a year.  Since many developed countries have already reached an emissions peak, what is new is the national peaking by developing countries.

The agreement to achieve their national peaking as soon as possible when many of them are still at very low levels of emissions (and of economic levels) raises many questions  as to whether and when they can achieve such a target. 

Finance and technology are crucial to support the developing countries' efforts, but on these issues Cancun made only small steps.  A new climate fund was agreed to, but there was no concrete commitment on the amount of money, or where it would come from.

A technology board is to be set up.  But the functions are more in the nature of “recommending actions” rather than making decisions. The Cancun text avoided any mention of intellectual property rights on climate-related technology, thus bowing to the demand of the United States, whereas the developing countries had argued, up to the last day, that this crucial issue must be addressed.

Did Cancun save the system?   This will be argued over for years to come.  The binding climate regime of the Kyoto Protocol was not saved. 

The conference was also marked by work methods that are unusual for the United Nations, with small-group meetings, texts drawn up by a few in various settings, over-taking the texts already compiled by the delegations in an open setting, and by a new precedent in which the objections of a country (Bolivia) to the final texts was over-ruled even though decisions are meant to be taken by consensus of all Parties present.

By setting new precedents, the nature of negotiations and decision-making in the UN may change, with ramifications that have to be seriously considered. 

There is a follow-up question to the comment made at Cancun airport. What does it mean to save a system if the climate and people are to be sacrificed?

This does not mean that one should give up on the climate talks.  On the contrary, it means that the developing countries in particular should gather more of their energies and efforts, recover ground, and fight harder, before and when the Climate Convention meetings resume, probably in March.

Next year, the climate battle will be even more uphill. The stakes are high, for the planet and the people, and also the system.