The year of collapse

Next week, international climate-change negotiations begin in Cancún following 12 months of setbacks. Tan Copsey explains why chances of serious progress towards a global climate treaty are looking slim.

The need for action on climate change has never been more urgent. Greenhouse-gas emissions for 2010 are likely to be some of the highest ever recorded. Global temperatures are also likely to approach record highs. But as John Ashton, the United Kingdom’s special representative on climate change, recently noted: “Negotiations are not as important as the political context in which they are taking place.” After a series of setbacks, the political context for negotiations in Cancún is dire.

Almost one year ago exactly, negotiations opened in Copenhagen. At that point, it seemed possible that a political agreement could be reached that might then lead to a legally binding treaty on climate change in Cancún.

No one will need reminding that the Copenhagen talks did not go well. They were marked by tussles between US and Chinese leaders, who had little political mandate to negotiate. The European Union was effectively sidelined. A small faction within the Group of 77 developing nations disrupted negotiations and ignored many of their own members, including vulnerable small-island states. And all of this happened against a backdrop of increasing economic uncertainty in the developed world and “climategate”, a clever though scientifically inconsequential public relations stunt by climate “sceptics”. In this context, the agreement of the Copenhagen Accord, a limited document that was “taken note of” by the conference, was a reasonable achievement.

As 2010 began, it seemed possible that progress could be made on “operationalising” constituent elements of the Copenhagen Accord — Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (a tool for protecting forests, known as REDD-plus); a new mechanism facilitating technology development and transfer; and finance for adaptation and mitigation through the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund. A binding deal might be achieved at some point in the future but in the near term, concrete steps would be taken in those areas where there was agreement. The United Nations process and institutions were obviously in need of reform, but seemed likely to be supplemented and reinforced by political decisions taken in other fora including the G20 and the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF), a platform for climate-change dialogue between 17 nations, launched in 2009.

Unfortunately the accord itself remains a contentious document. Most developing countries see it as mere “political guidance” and, as such, essentially irrelevant. It doesn’t help that some of the language it uses, including on adaptation, creates new uncertainty about which nations should receive funding first.

Meanwhile, progress in the G20 and the MEF meetings has been limited at best. As in United Nations negotiations, there is simply no political will to move forward. These meetings have featured re-runs of familiar conflicts over the form of any future agreement on climate change, the depth of cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions made by developed nations and how actions by major developing countries should be monitored.

Developments outside of international negotiations have made things worse. In the United States, climate-change legislation failed to pass through the Senate, the upper chamber of Congress. Recent electoral gains by climate “sceptic” Republicans have further dented prospects of the United States taking significant action on climate change at the federal level in the near future. As a result, the US will have a limited mandate to negotiate and is likely to continue to play a spoiler role in international negotiations, reducing the level of global ambition and alienating developing countries.

But it isn’t just the United States scaling back its levels of ambition. This has been a bad year for action on climate change in most developed countries. Japan is set to delay passing key climate-change legislation, Australia has hesitated on implementing emissions trading and Canada, which is likely to miss its Kyoto Protocol targets by a huge margin, is concentrating its efforts on lobbying for weaker international rules on emissions. Carbon markets have reflected this uncertainty – the price of carbon has remained low in the European Emissions Trading Scheme.

Developing nations have expressed their frustration and disappointment in differing ways. Small island states, which are already facing negative impacts from climate change, continue to advocate for immediate action wherever possible, while maintaining that they – as some of the most vulnerable nations – should have first access to adaptation funds. A group of Latin American nations, including major oil-producers Venezuela and Ecuador, met at a civil-society conference in Bolivia in April and agreed a series of radical proposals, which were subsequently presented at United Nations climate negotiations in Tianjin. Thus far, these proposals, which take the most extreme demands of developing nations, have only served to disrupt and delay negotiations as there is simply no prospect of any developed country agreeing to them.

UNFCCC negotiations have become heated. Disagreements over verification of developing-world efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions culminated in heated exchanges between the United States and China at recent negotiations in Tianjin. At the June summit in Bonn, frustrations with Saudi Arabian attempts to delay negotiations by seeking compensation for potential loss of future oil revenues boiled over: representatives for NGOs Oxfam and WWF were suspended after they stole Saudi nameplates from negotiations and dropped them in a toilet.

It is now likely that no new global agreement will be agreed before the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012, and that there will therefore be a gap before the second begins. In June, the United Nations presented a series of options to either extend the protocol or make provisional changes to its structure to prevent legal limbo. These measures are prudent given the desolate landscape of global climate negotiations and are another indicator of complete collapse in confidence that a new agreement can be formed in the near future.

So how do we move forward after a year in which nearly everything that could go wrong, went wrong? What would have to happen for Cancún to be considered a success? Negotiators at the summit will do well to rebuild trust. Progress is possible on issues like adaptation, establishing a new climate fund, reducing emissions by protection forests and technology transfer and deployment. Developed nations also need to show good faith by fulfilling pledges of fast-start finance. This must be done in a transparent manner – so as to avoid accusations that development aid is being double counted.

In the long-term, it may be that we are moving away from the form of top-down international cooperation on climate change encouraged by the United Nations process towards more voluntary, pledge and review systems. Even if this is the case, the UNFCCC will continue to provide an essential service by facilitating efforts on issues like adaptation.

Ultimately, bottlenecks and disagreements are unavoidable in the absence of political will. Nations like China and the United States will need to provide their negotiators with wider political mandates if we are to ever agree a more comprehensive deal or create a framework that leads to real, global reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions.


Tan Copsey is development manager at chinadialogue.

Homepage image from shows a "human hurricane" in Mexico City, staged ahead of Cancún to demonstrate Mexico’s vulnerability to climate change .