Climate Change – What can, and can’t, the UN do?

If the international climate negotiating process is going too slowly, and it is, what can be done?

As noted earlier, there are two prescriptive ways of reacting to the failure to date: do the same but try harder, or try something different.  In post-Warsaw discussions with UN officials, I have been exploring the first option.

So the question is: what can be done to make the negotiations proceed in real time – ‘real time’ being defined as a ‘protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force’, sufficiently soon to prevent dangerous climate change – i.e. by December 2015 in Paris (COP-21).

UN officials are, unsurprisingly, more upbeat than the global green movement about the outcome of Warsaw.  If you are pushing the pyramid blocks into place, eyes downward and muscles sore under the lash, you tend to measure progress in quantum ways different from that of the vizier. So, modern officials perceive Warsaw ’13 as having made ‘discernible progress’ in encouraging parties to ‘prepare their contributions’ for Lima in ‘14.

Others think that should have been done at Copenhagen in ’09, and certainly by Doha last year.

So then, how can progress be speeded up?  I advance my post-Warsaw thesis: surely the scientific and analytical work being done by research institutes and the IPCC can be more directly translated into UN documentation as part of each conference?  They then become an integral part of the negotiations rather than background reading.

Why, for example, could the UNFCCC secretariat not take the global carbon budget, already prepared and sufficiently robust for scrutiny, and generate a range of national commitments (‘bounded flexibility’) out to 2050 for each country?  That document could form the basis of negotiations.  Without it, abstractions and principles – breezes of diplomatic ‘hot air’ – waft through the conference halls.

The answer is two-fold: it is, strictly, not possible; and, given that, we’re working on it.

The official answer, at least the one given, is that it is ‘not possible’. The UNFCCC secretariat cannot do this – cannot directly import the work of the think-tanks into UN documentation unless requested to do so by member states.

What about the UN Secretary-General: surely he can take such an initiative?  No, there is a ‘legal firewall’ between the UNFCCC secretariat working for contracting parties under the UNFCCC process (essentially a treaty body), and the UN secretariat in New York, including the SG, working for (the same) member states.

The SG is required to be exceedingly cautious in assisting – offering guidance for, making an input into – the UNFCCC process.  He is, essentially, exogenous to the process.  So, if you can believe this, is even his much-anticipated Climate Summit in September ‘14.

Secondly, given that, ‘we’re working on it.’ The UNFCCC secretariat is arranging a more intensive round of briefings of government officials next year from the scientists and the policy analysts, involving the next two IPCC working group reports.  Delegates will ‘not be unaware’ of the background information in the critical lead-up to Lima in ’14 and Paris in ’15.  There will be ‘structured dialogue’ between delegates and IPCC contributing authors.  In particular, the pre-’20 work for ‘enhanced ambition’ under the DPA (Durban Platform of Action) will identify technological and economic mitigation options.  The competent international agencies – IEA, IRENA – will present, direct to governments.  Even agriculture will be introduced.

Meanwhile, the secretariat will be ensuring that the pre-Lima process of preparing for ‘the contributions’ is effective – it will be defining the information structure through which the parties will make their, essentially voluntary, input.  The structure will be ‘flexible’, including the MRV mechanism (monitoring, reporting and verification).

This is all diplo-speak for acknowledging that a fast and effective ‘top-down’ approach to global mitigation is virtually over, and a voluntary and flexible pledge-and-review approach is bedding in.

So what might emerge for 2015 is a legal agreement that picks up from the ‘92 Framework Convention, extends general binding obligations on the part of all parties that are more specific in character than the Convention, and that is accompanied by a separate stand-alone document containing guidelines (for ex ante transparency) and provision for a range of commitments (‘bounded flexibility’) with reporting standards and review mechanisms for tracking the collective ‘contributions’ for the 2°C threshold.

The phrase ‘protocol, another legal; instrument or agreed outcome with legal force’, incidentally, is code for the refusal of the developing countries’ like-minded group (especially India and China) to accept any internationally-binding document that identifies a specific commitment on their part.

So, the Warsaw progress, it is claimed, is that the post-Copenhagen uncertainty over the voluntary pledges can be clarified by Lima.  And  a post-’20 global bargain will thus bed in – intended to last for 30 years, but flexible enough for the specifics to change every five years or so.

That is the perception from the climate negotiation professionals. And they mean well.

And, if you have fifty years, you can relax into this kind of thinking.  If you have five, you cannot.

7 Comments Posted

  1. The population vote based on what they believe, which is influenced largely by the media. However the media don’t have to convey the truth. They are after the voters’ interest so the can sell advertising at a higher price. Presenting the facts alone is boring. Presenting controversy is interesting. So they emphasise controversy such as disagreement over AGW without pointing out the published refutations of much of what is said by the small group of AGW deniers and the result is that many people still believe that AGW is uncertain. People seem to have lost the power of critical thinking, which is a problem in the world of the internet where there are lots of people saying thinks and it is hard to tell which ones are reliable.

    That is why I believe the Green Party needs to make it clear why they believe AGW is happening and a major threat.


  2. It is a repeat of history, what is happening with the UN.

    No matter whether it is climate change or any other business the UN tries to resolve, the UN is basically a powerless body, a bureaucratic giant, that tries to get it right for everyone (member nation).

    It boils down to more or the lowest common denominator, or lowest level of common achievement. With close to 200 member countries, and with the crucial, larger ones, being the main polluters, all following different agendas (or group of country agendas), not much will be achieved.

    The problem and attempt for a binding solution have once more been adjourned, will continue to be adjourned, into the never-never.

    The League of Nations was founded to promote peace, it fell to pieces soon after it was founded, as the core members, the major powers, would not agree and continued with their rivalries. There came WW2 and the UN was founded after that, all with good intentions.

    But what we see mostly is, bottom of the cliff solutions, be this climate change, world hunger, wars, human rights abuses, economic disasters, whatever.

    A tragic repeat of history. It seems humankind is condemned to self destroy.

    But also the problem starts at home in most countries, where governments get voted in by a self serving populace, who put their short term interests before longer term interests of society and humankind.

    Who would seriously give up driving their cars each day, here in NZ, I ask? Very few, and those that vote Greens, and those that support Greenpeace and other environmentally concerned organisations, are sadly only a minority.

    It looks no better elsewhere.

  3. That’s actually a really interesting point, BJ. China’s leadership is in no way democratically elected, and thus does not need to concern itself with what happens at the next election. They also don’t have to give a damn about what the populace thinks, they’ll do as they are told and like it.

    In my first year of secondary school, the weekend homework essay assignment was “Democracy is good, but not perfect, dictatorship is bad but not hopeless”. This would have made a perfect example.

  4. People to talk with are the leaders of China. They are the ones who can make a decision AND make it stick no matter what the USA wants. There aren’t a lot of them. They have the best LONG term interests of their country in mind. They take a longer view than most other political leaders.

    If they can be convinced that something must be done now, and that it is in their LONG term interest to make it happen, then I am pretty sure that they will be willing to do whatever it takes to actually make sure it DOES happen.

    The thing to do is to convince them. To offer them the sort of external support and legitimacy that allows them to contemplate leading the world back from the precipice despite the price that ALL of us will pay, BECAUSE of the price that ALL of us will pay.


  5. Nail on head, BJ.

    For all this talk of ‘doing our fair share”, the actual reality is that there are less than a dozen countries that matter, they are the countries that either do, or soon will do the vast majority of the emissions. If they don’t / can’t / wont play ball, then essentially, we’re fecked.

    The only question is how does the world get the big emitters to tone it down a bit.

  6. The countries who can do this are the same countries that are refusing to make commitments now. Countries that can use economic means to get the attention of dumb bunny dinosaurs in the USA.

    UN can’t do it. Not without the US walking out on it… not without the uS veto being used liberally… not without the Tories in the UK making trouble. Want it done? Make it more trouble for them NOT to do something than to do it.

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