Climate deja-vu


We know that a global solution is needed to tackle climate change in an effective and just way. That is the raison d’etre of the international talks in the United Nations, where negotiators from the 194 countries parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are currently meeting in the German city of Bonn. This was my 6th UN meeting – a novice compared to some negotiators or civil society observers who have been around for at least 10 years. But after the end of the first week of negotiations (thank God I’m only here for one week!) I felt I wouldn’t be able to handle these meetings for much longer.

The failed Copenhagen Summit showed how far away we are from reaching an agreement that gives us a chance to avoid more than 2C of warming while continuing to fight poverty in the developing world. Scientists say that the pledges put forward in the Copenhagen Accord – the Summit’s political agreement – will result in between 3 and 4 C of global warming. To make things worse, the pledges under the Accord are of a voluntary nature, and hence there is no compliance mechanism to ensure that these are actually delivered or that they are in line with science. If we take into account that Africa will warm more than the global average we realise how urgent it is that we put in place urgent short term measures to deal with the consequences of climate change while starting to mobilise resources and build institutional capacity at all levels for a long-term solution.

What became crystal clear in Copenhagen was the fact that the USA, one of the major historical emitters, is not prepared to take on binding responsibilities and embed these in an international treaty of any sort.

Already in 2007 the international community had understood that the USA would never be part of the Kyoto Protocol – given how politically controversial it had become for the US administration to pass its ratification through Congress. Hence the Bali Action Plan was agreed upon, which launched a separate track of talks where USA emissions would be negotiated. Since Bali, the expectation was that Copenhagen would deliver a global solution based on two outcomes – a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, with new targets for a period commencing in 2012; and decisions on the second track, including emission reductions for the USA, a support package for developing countries, and mitigation actions for developing countries. Instead, we got a weak political statement and a mandate to continue talking.

And here we are, in Bonn again, talking. Developed countries continue to refuse to lead the global fight against climate change, a problem that they caused. Developing countries, rightly so, resist pushes to talk about what they should do to tackle climate change until they trust that developed countries will commit and deliver their fair-share of their international responsibilities. The politics are entrenched and it’s difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

So is there a way forward? We know that the US won’t commit to anything that is ambitious nor binding in Cancun, to say the least. In the light of US’ procrastination, Australia, Japan, Canada and friends are sending clear signal that they won’t commit to ambitious targets, and even less so under the Kyoto Protocol, the only existing legal framework that today regulates climate change. Before Copenhagen, China and other developing countries presented to the international community their plans to make the move towards a low carbon future. This is in acknowledgment of the role that they must play in this global endeavour, despite the fact that international climate rules acknowledge that it should be developed countries that lead in tackling this challenge. And as a huge concession, developing countries that endorsed the Copenhagen Accord agreed to be more transparent about these national actions so that the international community can see the extent to which climate action is being taken forward in developing countries. These have been all very positive developments, but which unfortunately have failed to be reciprocated by developed countries.

Where does Europe fit in this picture? What should we, as European civil society, call for our governments to do? Historically the European Union has played the role of climate leader, committing to the Kyoto Protocol and pushing for climate action at home. In Copenhagen, it failed to deliver this leadership. It prioritised engagement with the USA by backtracking on its support to the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, despite the fact that developing countries were strongly calling for its continuation. It failed to commit unconditionally to a 30% target, which would have showed the rest of the world that the EU takes climate change seriously and won’t wait for the laggards to catch up with the harsh reality.

The EU must also deliver its fair share of urgent climate finance – as promised last December. Transparency in the disbursal of these funds is of utmost importance, to understand were the money is going (and ensure that adaptation and mitigation needs are addressed in balance); which countries are benefiting from it; and crucially, whether the money is additional to existing aid commitments. Last week the EU published its first report to show the international community how this money is being spent. This is a welcomed first step, but the report falls short of the detail that is needed. In the current context of lack of trust between developed and developing countries, honesty would make a huge difference. Let’s hope that the EU understands this and presents a more comprehensive report at the end of the year.

As things stand it’s unlikely that the international talks will see more ambition from developed countries in between now and Cancun. But as civil society we play a crucial role in pushing our governments to do what today they don’t think that today is politically achievable. In Europe we must continue pushing hard for a commitment to a 30% target, regardless of the outcome of the international talks. We should send a positive message about the importance of a low-carbon future and the role that each of us – NGOs, governments, private sector –  should play in building it.

And at the international talks we should push the EU to play a role of leadership in order to become once again, a relevant world climate player. This means putting forward at least a 30% mitigation target in the Kyoto Protocol while supporting the continuation of negotiations on the two tracks beyond Cancun. A decision to continue negotiations under the two tracks is the only way to ensure that the basic legal architecture of the climate regime is maintained. The trust gap between developed and developing countries is today so huge that it is not realistic to open up discussions about a new legal framework that would replace the Kyoto Protocol and the outcome of the Bali track. Developing countries will only be in a position to discuss a totally new climate regime when developed countries commit and deliver the level of action that reflects their greater historical responsibility. And because it is clear that the US is not in a position to commit to a top-down international agreement, a shift to a new framework now risks opening the door to a race to the bottom in the multilateral climate architecture. We cannot allow that to happen.

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