Kennedy Graham

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

by Kennedy Graham

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.