Archive for the ‘UN Climate Talks’ Category


Why are international negotiations failing?

24 June 2012

There is not much to say about the recent Rio+20 conference. This time, nobody is even pretending anything of significance has been achieved. Two decades after the original conference that was supposed to save the world, countries reaffirmed the commitments they made in 1992 and agreed to agree on some goals in the future. The US lobbied to remove anything of substance from the text. Delegates could not even agree on the seemingly no-brainer proposal to end the $1 trillion spent globally on fossil fuel subsidies (despite a petition signed by over 1 million people calling on them to do so).

Instead of talking about Rio+20 I want to ask: why are these negotiations failing?

Some commentators argue the reason nothing is being achieved is because of the current economic crisis, but this explanation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In the last 20 years there have been economic ups and downs, but international negotiations have dragged on pointlessly throughout it all. In that time, far from the negotiators’ constant claims that they were making progress, the situation has in fact deteriorated at an accelerating rate. The economic crisis is just the most recent excuse not to act.

It is not that there is a shortage of money, but that money is going to the wrong priorities. Governments are able to find the money for fossil fuel subsidies. They can find money for tax cuts for corporations and the super-rich. And it didn’t take them decades to find trillions of dollars to bail out banks.

Other commentators argue the problem is conflicting national interests. But that explanation is not sufficient either, because at the end of the day we are all in the same boat. The real problem is the positions of too many governments are determined by big business. In particular, the fossil fuel industry has spent decades funding misinformation to discredit the science of global warming and lobbying to neuter any policy intended to address it.

It is tempting to conclude that governments are incompetent at solving problems, but that’s what big business wants us to think. On the contrary, governments are powerless because they have surrendered too much power to big business. Our politics is not democratic government by the people, for the people, but undemocratic government by the corporations, for the corporations. For example, in the US political donations have reached astronomical amounts, and who wins or loses elections is largely determined by who can raise the most money. Business lobbyists have privileged access to the political system, and are using it to block regulations (and remove existing ones) intended to protect the environment, in the name of reducing the size of government.

Of course, these are generalizations; corporate power doesn’t explain everything. The belief in unlimited economic growth runs even deeper, through all traditional political ideologies. We need to change the way we think to recognize the economy is part of the environment and stands or falls along with it. Nevertheless, in today’s world big business is the main political force standing in the way of action on the environment.

We need to reverse the trend toward small government – not to infringe upon the rights of ordinary people, but to enforce the responsibilities of businesses. I’m not advocating authoritarian state socialism (which is just as growth-oriented as capitalism), but a better democracy: greater political equality. We need to find ways to reduce and counter the influence of money in politics. I don’t have a magic bullet solution, but first we must understand and expose the problem.


Durban Part 4: Conclusion

4 February 2012

Also see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series about the significance of last month’s Durban climate talks (COP17).

Grenada said in an opening statement: “AOSIS will not and cannot accept a deal here in Durban that does not provide a means to bring in more ambitious legally-binding commitments for Annex I Parties well before 2020.” But the final outcome looks to me like it has exactly the same fatal flaw. Delegates did not agree any new emissions cuts, let alone binding ones.

The headline result of COP17 is a non-binding agreement to agree in four years on unknown actions in an unknown framework with unknown legal force, with no indication of how it will apply differently to rich and poor, to be implemented when it will be too late to preserve a safe climate. The product of Kyoto negotiations is a non-binding agreement to agree in 12 months on a possibly voluntary commitment period of unknown length, covering an unknown set of countries expected to total less than 15% of global emissions, with unknown but apparently politics-based emissions targets and unknown but likely fraudulent accounting for those in it, and benefits without responsibilities for those outside it. And the outcome of LCA negotiations is a non-binding agreement that doesn’t do much except administrate existing voluntary pledges, open the door to further dubious offsets, and establish a fund without any money in it.

Probably the best part of the whole package is the Durban Platform’s workplan to raise ambition, and it’s far from certain to lead anywhere. Read the rest of this entry ?


Durban Part 3: The outcome

3 February 2012

Also see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series about the significance of last month’s Durban climate talks (COP17).

After the conclusion of the Durban climate talks, EU negotiator Connie Hedegaard proclaimed that “the European Union’s strategy worked”. But did it?

Durban Platform

Legal form – binding or not?

Let’s look at the text of the agreements from COP17, beginning with the central Durban Platform. After all the haggling described in Part 2, the final wording of paragraph 2 “decides to launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties”. This has been widely interpreted as an agreement that all countries must accept legally binding emissions targets.

But what exactly is “an agreed outcome with legal force”? According to an European lawyer on the scene, it means effectively “a legally binding agreement”. But according to another analysis, the third option appears to allow for a UNFCCC agreement that is not one of the Convention’s recognized types of legally binding instruments (protocols, annexes, and amendments). A third analysis points out that the text does not specify the amount of legal force the outcome will have, or whether all countries will be equally bound, or even whether it will include emissions targets. Finally, the Durban Platform is itself non-binding.

Timeline – a decade of delay

What about the timeline for this nebulous future agreement? Paragraphs 3-4 decide negotiations on the Durban Platform will begin “as a matter of urgency in the first half of 2012”, and conclude “as early as possible but no later than 2015”, and that it will “come into effect and be implemented from 2020”.

On the bright side, the EU succeeded in setting a 2015 deadline for agreement with negotiations beginning almost immediately, thwarting the attempts by the US and BASIC to delay even the negotiations until 2015. Yet the US succeeded in delaying legally binding action until 2020, in spite of AOSIS initially refusing to support such a move. Ultimately everyone loses, because humanity cannot afford to wait another decade for serious action. We need rapid emissions cuts starting now, preferably yesterday. Read the rest of this entry ?


Durban Part 2: The drama

2 February 2012

Part 1 of this series about the significance of last month’s Durban climate talks (COP17) can be found here.

TIME magazine’s Person of the Year 2011 was “the protester”, and protesters certainly made their presence felt and their voices heard in Durban. As put it: “There is a story of hope from Durban—it’s the story of the youth and their allies who refused to remain silent.”

The drama began on Thursday 8 December, when US delegate Todd Stern’s speech was interrupted by SustainUS youth delegate Abigail Borah:

“I am speaking on behalf of the United States of America because my negotiators cannot. The obstructionist Congress has shackled justice and delayed ambition for far too long. I am scared for my future. 2020 is too late to wait! We need an urgent path to a fair, ambitious, and legally binding treaty.”

Though Borah was thrown out by security and banned from the rest of the conference, she was applauded by other delegates. Shortly after, Stern told a press conference it was a “misconception” that the US advocated delaying until 2020, and the US did not oppose the EU’s push for a legally binding agreement. However, his office later clarified that actually the US do oppose a legally binding agreement. Read the rest of this entry ?


Too late to wait on the Durban Platform, Part 1

31 January 2012

Over the summer, I have reflected on the significance of the climate talks last month in Durban, South Africa. Officially known as COP17, it was the longest UNFCCC conference. See my previous post for more background on the talks (though my views have become slightly more nuanced since I wrote it, particularly on the issue of justice).

The battlelines

There were four major sides in Durban:

The United States (US), supported by its usual cheer squad of other rich polluters including Canada, Russia, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia, campaigned strongly to delay any new action indefinitely. The US has since 1997 been opposed to any legally binding agreement unless it also imposes targets on poor countries. Having won a global regime of insufficient, voluntary pledges through bilateral negotiations in Copenhagen, the US argued in Durban there was no need to strengthen those pledges before 2020, and refused to accept binding emissions cuts until sometime after 2020, if ever, or even to start negotiations before 2015. Despite having signed the Cancun Agreements in 2010 to “take urgent action” to “hold the increase in global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” (a target which the latest research says is still “a prescription for disaster”), US negotiator Todd Stern told the media in Durban that the US sees 2°C as a mere “guidepost”, not “some kind of mandatory obligation”. Meanwhile, Canada, Russia, and Japan helped sabotage Kyoto while refusing to continue being part of it; Australia and New Zealand colluded on creative accounting rules. Read the rest of this entry ?


What Should Happen in Durban

9 December 2011

“We have shown that phase out of fossil fuel emissions is urgent. CO2 from fossil fuel use stays in the surface climate system for millennia.”

NASA climate scientist James Hansen and 16 co-authors

“We would be quite open to a discussion about a process that would lead to a negotiation for the thing, whatever it turns out to be, that follows 2020, and we are also fully willing to recognize that that might be a legal agreement.”

US climate delegate Todd Stern

So here we are again, at the height of humanity’s annual cycle of talking about our response to the escalating climate crisis. This time around the stakes are higher than ever: the crisis has never been more pressing, yet the procrastination has never been more blatant.

I am, of course, referring to the 17th Conference of Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa, where world leaders are currently gathered. I use the term “leaders” to refer to the people who are in charge, rather than to imply they are demonstrating any actual leadership. On the contrary, by all indications the conference is heading for a catastrophic failure of leadership.

The only real leadership in Durban has been the protests from the reasonable voices who are being ignored: a broad coalition of the poorest countries (African and small island states), young people, the Occupy movement, and environmental groups. Collectively they form the “climate justice movement”.

They argue, fairly convincingly, that the talks are dominated by rich countries, in turn controlled by polluting corporations, who are attempting to dismantle the Kyoto Protocol and replace it with an even weaker voluntary regime. While Kyoto is weak, is riddled with loopholes, and has so far failed – global emissions have risen by half since the reference year of 1990, and by a record-breaking 6% in 2010 – it remains the only existing international treaty with a framework for legally binding emissions targets. And rich countries want to carry over from Kyoto the offsets and other loopholes which have made it ineffective. Read the rest of this entry ?