As Climate Talks Stumble, U.N. Process in Question

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A key deadline for countries to submit emission reduction goals to the United Nations as part of the recently negotiated Copenhagen Accord passed last Sunday. The U.N. received commitments from 55 nations, but 139 countries remain unsupportive of the political statement, leading the international body to push back the commitment deadline indefinitely. 

Since the high-level climate change summit in Copenhagen concluded in December, global climate talks have been in a state of confusion. Two parallel tracks are already under way - one that includes the United States and one that omits this significant world emitter. The Copenhagen Accord, some say, threatens to introduce a third procedural track, complicating the already tense deliberations.

The Accord, a non-binding political statement introduced at the 11th hour of the Copenhagen summit, has been praised by some for garnering stronger commitments from major developing nations, which could in turn deliver a binding global climate treaty. Yet its formulation has also threatened to destabilize the nearly 20-year old process developed under the U.N.'s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the leading international body for climate change negotiations.

The United States, Brazil, South Africa, India and China formulated the Accord with the understanding that the text would later be adopted by all 194 nations. But many participants considered this outcome to be undemocratic and a departure from a U.N. process meant to offer equal voice to every nation.

Implications of the Accord

Many had hoped that the Copenhagen conference would deliver a legally binding international treaty on climate change, or at least provide direction on many of the core components under negotiation. But the Accord itself contains little of these details and provides instead for countries to set their own emission reduction targets unilaterally.

Among other elements, it states that 2 degrees centigrade is the target above which global temperatures must not rise; it proposes the mobilization of $30 billion by 2012 and $100 billion by 2020 for developing countries to address climate change; and it calls on developed and developing countries to submit their national actions on climate change to the U.N. by January 31, a deadline that has now been postponed "indefinitely."

Sanjay Vashist, director of Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA) said that without larger consensus, the Accord reflects "an outcome of a flawed negotiating process...negotiated by a small group of countries," rather than the 194-nation body.

There are further reservations about the Accord's content itself. While the text addresses several key negotiation issues, many crucial details remain undetermined. "It is far from clear where the funding [for climate change mitigation and adaptation] will come from, if it is genuinely new and additional, and how it will be allocated and channeled," said Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow with the International Institute for Environment and Development's climate change group, who co-authored a recent report on climate finance.

Other observers said that the Accord does not contain the level of ambition with respect to temperature rise that is needed to protect the rights to survival or livelihood of many nations and people.

"[With] the mitigation ambition expressed in the...Accord, we are heading for a 4-degree Celsius rise in temperatures and the disappearance of almost all island states," said Srinivas Krishnaswamy of Vasudha with the Climate Action Network - South Asia. "In addition, this level of ambition will mean that most parts of Africa and perhaps even Asia...will experience large-scale hunger and destruction of livelihoods."

According to a recent Ecofys analysis, the emission reductions agreed to so far will commit the world to a 3.5 degrees Celsius rise in global temperature, not the agreed 2 degrees.

Getting the U.S. on board

Other advocacy groups have taken a different perspective, highlighting the Accord's value in establishing an important basis for a shift in U.S. domestic politics. Firmer commitments from large emerging economies such as China and India may facilitate domestic climate change legislation in the U.S. Senate - an action seen as crucial to obtaining strong commitments from Australia, Canada, and Japan, they say.

"Now the Senate can take up clean energy and climate legislation in the certain knowledge that Americans won't act alone," said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"It's a powerful signal to see President Obama, Premier Wen, Prime Minister Singh, and President Zuma agree on a meeting of the minds," said Senator John Kerry, chair of the foreign relations committee, in a prepared statement. "These are the four horsemen of a climate change solution. With this in hand, we can work to pass domestic legislation early next year to bring us across the finish line."

The United States has submitted a pledge to reduce national emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 54 other nations, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, and South Africa, have also provided commitments to the United Nations. However, some 139 countries have so far abstained.

Moving forward

In the wake of contention over the Accord, major developing countries restated their commitment to concluding a successful global treaty at meetings to be held in Mexico in December 2010. In a joint statement in Delhi, India, last week, environment ministers from the so-called "BASIC" countries - Brazil, South Africa, India, and China - reiterated their support of the Copenhagen Accord and their "commitment to working together with all other countries to ensure an agreed outcome...later this year."

The ministers called on Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who hosted the Copenhagen summit, to convene meetings of the two negotiating groups by March 2010 and ensure that they meet "at least five times" prior to the Mexico gathering, the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP-16) under the UNFCCC.

Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, remains optimistic that nations will announce deeper commitments in the months ahead. "I think [the Accord's] adequacy...will depend greatly on what actions the world is willing to take now, and I hope they will take urgent and adequate action in the future," he said in an interview with Science magazine.

Breach of trust?

The four BASIC countries coordinated their positions closely in Copenhagen, exerting pressure on industrialized nations to commit to ambitious goals for emission reductions as well as to provide technical and financial support to developing nations.

But some observers argue that these large developing countries betrayed the interests of their smaller allies in the Group of 77 (G77), a broader grouping of developing-world nations.

There was concern that by breaking off into a separate bloc, the BASIC nations put at risk many of the fundamental negotiating tenets that the G77 had embraced.

Jairam Ramesh, India's Minister for Environment and Forests, sought to address this concern at a press conference following a meeting of BASIC leaders last week in New Delhi. "BASIC is embedded in the G77, so there is no fissure," he said. "Since these four are the big countries, they need to have some coordinated actions towards helping the poor and vulnerable countries within the G77, as well as taking [their] own actions."

Ramesh further emphasized that after each BASIC meeting - gatherings that are now scheduled to take place quarterly - the group's decisions will be communicated to the G77 for consideration prior to any wider U.N. meetings.

The future of U.N. involvement?

Some critics have raised questions about the efficacy of the United Nations to manage the global negotiations fairly and effectively.

"This is a declaration that small and poor countries don't matter, that international civil society doesn't matter, and that serious limits on carbon don't matter," said Bill McKibben, a U.S. environmentalist and founder of the climate action group "The president has wrecked the U.N. and he's wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming."

Others suggest that the U.N.-sponsored climate talks have become unwieldy and should be addressed within a smaller forum of the major emitters, such as the G8+5 or the G20. Notably, the 55 nations that are reported to have submitted targets or actions under the Accord to date represent 78 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

"We...need to have major reform of the U.N. body overseeing the negotiations and of the way the negotiations are conducted," wrote UK Climate Secretary Edward Miliband in a late-December commentary in The Guardian.

"It is...impossible to imagine a negotiation of enormous complexity where you have a table of 192 countries involved in all the detail," U.S. climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing observed in a more recent Guardian interview.

In their joint declaration, the BASIC environment ministers were quick to stress their wish for the Accord's content to feed into the current framework of climate negotiations, and not to adopt a new framework based on the agreement. "All of us are unanimously of the view that  the value of the accord lies not as a stand-alone document but as part of the two-track negotiating process," India's Ramesh said.

Anna da Costa is a Worldwatch Institute research fellow based in New Delhi, India.

This article is a product of Eye on Earth, the Worldwatch Institute's online news service. For permission to republish Eye on Earth content, please contact Juli Diamond at

Correction: The article originally stated that Srinivas Vasudha works for Greenpeace India. His title is in fact Srinivas Krishnaswamy of Vasudha and he represents Climate Action Network - South Asia. The article also incorrectly attributed a quote from UK Energy and Climate Secretary Edward Miliband to Foreign Affairs Secretary David Miliband.