18 November 2010
The UN Climate Convention and Kyoto Protocol: Redux or Redundant?
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
story highlights

What fate awaits the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol?

Will they just fade away, victims of the current diplomatic impasse on the scope and form of a future agreement?

Are they doomed to become an irrelevance as key stakeholders look elsewhere for answers?

Or are fears of their demise premature?

“I now close my career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty.” US General Douglas MacArthur

What fate awaits the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol? Will they just fade away, victims of the current diplomatic impasse on the scope and form of a future agreement? Are they doomed to become an irrelevance as key stakeholders look elsewhere for answers? Or are fears of their demise premature? Will the UNFCCC and perhaps even the Kyoto Protocol instead be restored to their former pre-Copenhagen stature, renewed and ready for the post-2012 period?

Clues from Cancún?

The UNFCCC’s 16th Conference of the Parties (COP 16), which opens on 29 November in Cancún, Mexico, is the next major event in the UN’s climate calendar. What clues can Cancún offer?

First, it is noteworthy that those close to the talks do not have great expectations. The level of ambition has dropped since Copenhagen: no one seriously expects any major breakthrough on emission reductions commitments at COP 16.

Their more modest hopes simply reflect the global political landscape. Although the previous round of UNFCCC talks, held last month in Tianjin, made progress on “narrowing down options” in the negotiating texts, agreement among the 194 parties to the UNFCCC seems no closer now than it did immediately after Copenhagen. Key fracture lines remain: developing countries still insist that the West leads with stronger, legally-binding commitments based on “historic responsibility,” while industrialized countries argue that major developing economies such as China and India need to shoulder more of the burden. This fundamental difference will not be resolved in Cancún.

Shifts in domestic politics have not helped. The US mid-term elections confirmed what most people already knew: that a cap-and-trade system will not be adopted in the US in the foreseeable future. President Obama may still believe energy policy is an issue on which Republicans and Democrats can collaborate, but it looks like an uphill struggle. In the short-term, while US negotiators expressed disappointment at progress in Tianjin and have even spoken recently of a “new paradigm” in negotiations, it is hard to see what they could bring to Cancún that could inspire a breakthrough.

The EU is still talking the talk. In early November, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said the “goal for Cancún remains a balanced set of decisions which keep up the momentum toward an international framework to keep global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius.” Those seeking progress under the UNFCCC may welcome his words. On the other hand, the EU has not been able to agree to step beyond its longstanding unilateral commitment of a 20% emissions cut by 2020. Furthermore, there is little sign of a change anytime soon, as newer EU members who are skeptical of higher targets begin to assert themselves. In this regard, it is worth noting that Poland and Hungary will hold the EU’s six-month rotating presidency in 2011.

What Can Cancún Achieve? The Stepwise Theory

Recognizing that any aspirations for a broad breakthrough in Cancún are long gone, many stakeholders are still hoping for “wins” in specific areas. This, they say, will help maintain the momentum towards a broader agreement down the track.

UNFCCC Executive Director Christiana Figueres has been prominent in promoting this approach. She is pushing for Cancún to result in a framework to support adaptation and a mechanism for technology transfer. Earlier this month, she told the UN General Assembly’s Second Committee that a “politically-balanced package of decisions” could be achieved. She foresaw the inclusion of outcomes not only on adaptation and technology, but also on capacity building and on REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries, and the role of conservation, sustainable use of forests and enhancement of carbon stocks). She also urged progress on some thorny issues such as developed countries’ mitigation targets, accountability and transparency provisions for the implementation of targets and actions, and the impacts of “response measures” (a major issue for OPEC and some other groups).

Key negotiating groups seem generally to agree with this list, with a few variations here and there. For instance, the EU’s aims for COP 16 include reaching a decision to establish a registry to start “capturing and facilitate [the] matching of actions and support,” as well as a decision on guidelines, rules and modalities for actions that would operationalize REDD+. The EU also supports a decision to link work under the UNFCCC with discussions under the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and International Maritime Organization (IMO), so that decisions in these bodies do not lead to “competitive distortions or carbon leakage.”

Many key players view financing as a major potential deliverable for COP 16, including a possible “Green Fund.” In Figueres’ speech to the Second Committee, she highlighted developed countries’ commitment under the Copenhagen Accord to provide short-term financing for developing countries of US$30 billion up to 2012, with a balanced allocation between adaptation and mitigation. Meanwhile, WWF is lobbying the UK and Germany to take a lead on innovative financial instruments, such as a levy on aviation and shipping or a global financial transaction tax. “The Cancún meeting itself might not result in a ‘new climate deal’ for our planet. But if these governments show political leadership there is room for optimism—all of the building blocks are in place to make the Cancún negotiations a success,” said WWF’s Gordon Shepherd.

The Indian Government also seems eager to help move the financing discussions forward. It is holding informal, ministerial-level talks before COP 16 that are expected to focus on an international technology mechanism and a financial mechanism that could kick-start funding for developing countries to acquire climate-friendly technologies under the UNFCCC.

Another factor that could influence financing discussions in Cancún is the new report from the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing. The report has come under fire from civil society groups for focusing on private sector support at the expense of public financing. “How can we trust the climate to the same markets that ruined the global economy?” has been a popular refrain from some on the left. However, not everyone has been so dismissive. “By taking a broader perspective, the report could help bridge some of the divides and help the process move forward,” opined one insider.

Is It Enough?

Can Cancún deliver some forward movement? Even if it can, will it be enough to re-invigorate the UNFCCC and provide hope that a bigger prize is waiting down the track?

The modest aims for Cancún are certainly worth fighting for if such a step-by-step approach leads to a better outcome in the end (for a discussion of this assumption, read the Earth Negotiations Bulletin’s analysis from the Bonn talks in August: http://www.iisd.ca/climate/ccwg11/).

Some success in Cancún may help placate officials from a number of countries who have expressed frustration at lack of progress. Privately, some are talking about “other avenues” if the UNFCCC cannot deliver, perhaps leaving the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol to slowly “fade away.” Under this scenario, the UNFCCC would be reduced to routine and somewhat mundane tasks such as submitting national communications, rather than being a key focal point for securing new global policies.

If not the UNFCCC, Then Where? And What?

If COP 16 is not a success, will other processes or possibilities be pursued with more vigor? In terms of alternative bodies, some have been talking up the G20. Certainly it is a more relevant body these days than the G8, since it represents most of the world’s emissions, and carries growing political and economic clout. It also has fewer members than the UNFCCC, which means fewer parties to please. However, key players such as the US, EU and China are still the US, EU and China whether they’re sitting behind their country nameplates at the UNFCCC or the G20, and the disagreements between them remain the same. Further, a smaller group like this lacks the legitimacy of the UNFCCC, which has almost universal membership.

Could regional processes step up to the plate? Certainly. In fact, many regional agreements are already in play. Advocates are right to point out that solutions will need to be regional and local. But ultimately, this is a problem requiring global action, on both economic and environmental grounds. Regional answers alone will not suffice.

If another process cannot answer the call, could another solution? Geoengineering was a word whispered only in the shadows as recently as two years ago. In some circles, it is now being shouted from the rooftops. Recognizing this, the IPCC was asked to investigate the matter further. It was also the subject of a lengthy article in The Economist(6 November). If a multilateral process is not working, could geoengineering offer a relatively cheap answer? The Economist concluded that the risks are significant, while the benefits uncertain and unlikely to be shared evenly among countries. At best, it suggested starting with a careful experimental phase and that any future initiative should complement serious action to achieve a low-carbon world. In short, it is no substitute for serious work on actual emissions. Further, it is worth noting the recent decision taken in Nagoya by parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which arguably amounts to a de facto moratorium on geoengineering.

Yet another avenue could be legal. Recently, the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development (FIELD) has revived an earlier proposal that developing countries take industrialized countries to court as a way to catalyze action. Perhaps they could. But again, the idea would be to push the multilateral process forward, rather than to replace it.

The UNFCCC: Storming Back or Fading Out?

There are currently no clear challengers to the UNFCCC’s crown, tarnished as it may be. Moreover, there may even be a few causes for optimism that multilateralism is not yet dead. Some encouraging signs from Cancún could potentially help reignite the enthusiasm that has been lost since Copenhagen. And even if Cancún turns out to be a “damp squib” (as some fear), it is not the end of the line for the UNFCCC (although it may have implications for the Kyoto Protocol). Like the “old soldiers” they have become, neither the UNFCCC nor its Protocol will simply blink out of existence. There is the risk that they may “fade out” of the public consciousness, especially if new momentum is not found. But one should never rule out the UNFCCC’s return to center stage. If the climate process has demonstrated anything over the past two decades, it is that domestic politics and public priorities can change, sometimes quite rapidly. The long-term fate of the climate process—for good or ill—will not be sealed by one single event, whether it is in Copenhagen, Cancún or Durban.