“There is no alternative to the UN”

Robert Orr is assistant secretary-general at the United Nations. As Cancún moves into its final hours, he tells Meng Si and Lu Sze Ping there is still everything to play for.

Robert Orr is assistant secretary-general for policy planning in the executive office of the secretary-general of the United Nations.

Meng Si: In a previous interview, you said that significant progress is possible in Cancún. We are coming to the end of the negotiation. What progress do you see?

Robert Orr: There’s no doubt that progress is being made in the negotiations on a range of issues from technology transfer to financing and deforestation. The challenge is making sure that there’s a full, balanced package that would be adopted by all parties – and in order to get that balanced package it will require further progress on the mitigation issue, on the Kyoto Protocol.

These are big, longstanding issues that won’t be finally resolved until there is a comprehensive agreement down the road, but here in Cancún it does require progress in each of these areas in order to get that package agreed.

Lu Sze Ping: Today’s news gives a more pessimistic analysis. We’ve heard that Bolivia walked out of talks yesterday, India’s environment minister has said the country is under a lot of pressure. Are these signs consistent with what you just described?

RO: I think it’s normal in negotiations that the closer you are to the centre of the action, the more it moves up and down like a rollercoaster – it can feel good or bad depending on one or two meetings. If you look at the overall trajectory of these negotiations over recent days, the trajectory is that progress is being made but, as I said, that does not guarantee a successful outcome.

What will be required for a successful outcome is significant progress on these big issues of mitigation and the future of the Kyoto Protocol. There are some very contentious issues still on the table so that can affect everything. The fact that progress has been made on some of these other areas could easily be washed away like the sands out here on the beach of Cancún if the big issues don’t move forward. They don’t have to be resolved finally but they do have to move forward.

MS: “Balance” is the new buzz word. But parties may have different interpretations of the word. What is your definition and expectation of a balanced package? Do you think we will get it in Cancún?

RO: You’re absolutely correct that everyone defines balance differently. But what I think everyone is recognising by using the word balance is that they can’t just get what they want and not deliver on things that other parties want. It is a recognition of the fundamental nature of the negotiation – which is give and take. So I think while they may have different definitions of balance, the fact that everyone is seeking a balanced package is of importance.

What would constitute a balanced package? Some of the concrete issue areas on which progress has been made, perhaps the most salient one that people are focused on is deforestation. This is a major proportion of emissions – around 17%. If an agreement could be struck on the deforestation front, this would be a major outcome here. Technology is being negotiated and could easily be finalised here in Cancún. On financing, there’s a range of views on how much can and should be done on long term financing but I think really the focus is much more on getting a very clear system in place for fast-start financing. So if you put all those together with some progress on the Kyoto Protocol and on mitigation commitments, then that would constitute a balanced package.

The good news is that everyone pretty much agrees that that’s what the package looks like. The fight is within the pieces, not about what the package is. And that’s a major achievement: to get to the point where everyone is looking at the same items to be agreed. And some of them are well advanced and some of them have a way to go.

Lu: After Copenhagen, many questioned the effectiveness of the UN process. Others said that it is not the process but the politics that count. What is your view on this?

RO: There’s no such thing as process without politics – it’s the politics which underly the big decisions that governments have to make. It’s for that reason that the [UN] secretary general focused on getting heads of state and government into the discussion because the major trade-offs within countries and within economies require head of state level attention. That’s politics.

But in these negotiations here in Cancún, for a lot of the issues that have to be decided, there really is a technical quality as well as a political quality. I think everyone agrees the process is functioning much more smoothly this year. There has been a great increase in the amount of trust between the parties. I have not heard anything like the level of dissension about the process that we heard in the past. I think it was a natural reaction to the challenging conference in Copenhagen, at which expectations were so high that it was only too likely that it could end in some frustrations. But I think this year, the seriousness with which the parties are approaching the negotiation is very important – it recognises the stakes: how much is at stake, both on the ground with respect to the impacts of climate change on real people everywhere but secondly the stakes for the negotiating process.

There is no alternative to the UNFCCC process. This is a global issue, it affects everybody and everybody has to be represented in finding the solution, because we need progress everywhere – we need mitigation and adaptation efforts everywhere. The burdens don’t fall evenly, but the burdens do fall everywhere. That’s not to say we can’t make progress in other more informal fora and then mainstream it into this process and that’s part of what we’ve seen in the course of this year.

But I think it’s safe to say that the process has found its footing again and the negotiations are proceeding much more smoothly, but if there’s not a successful outcome here in Cancún, I think that could be put into question.

Lu: In terms of politics behind progress, what can be learned from the recent breakthrough at the Nagoya biodiversity summit?

RO: I think in Nagoya what you saw was a very well run process, I think the Japanese government should get some great credit for not just the organisation but also the real energy they put behind that process. Likewise here in Cancún, the Mexican government is doing a tremendous amount and has invested a lot of their political capital, human resources and financial resources to make this process successful. The amount of outreach has been extraordinary. So in that sense, these are very parallel.

In order to get a final deal however, it does take the will of the parties. The host and secretariat can only do so much. You can create the platform, bring everyone to the table, create the best conditions possible, but the parties have to make the deal. In Nagoya, the range of issues was narrower than in the climate-change negotiations. But there were differences and they were overcome. The fact that there were compromises and everyone walked away happy with the outcome is very significant.

MS: Is there structural or organisational change happening within the UNFCCC in order to speed up the negotiating process?

RO: There are a number of innovations. I think with the new executive secretary, it’s natural that there have been some changes. There has been really across the board praising not only of the Mexican COP presidency but also of Christiana Figueres and the UNFCCC secretariat. This is important because it was some of those dynamics that broke down in Copenhagen and undermined confidence in the process. The fact that people are openly, repeatedly, publicly praising both the host and the management by the UNFCCC secretariat bodes good things for the future because it means parties have confidence again in their process.

But that all hinges on getting a significant package out of Cancún: if you have perfect process but it doesn’t produce results, no one will be happy.

MS: Before Cancún, China expressed hope in rebuilding trust among parties. What is your observation on China’s changing role in the negotiation as a developing country and at the same time, the biggest carbon-dioxide emitter?

RO: Obviously the role of China is huge, not just because of its status as a top emitter but also because of its political weight in this negotiation and in the world. So what China does, matters. It’s part of the reality of the twenty-first century that everyone watches the biggest players the most carefully. And I think it’s a level of scrutiny that China like some of the other large states in this negotiation has to get used to.

But I think it’s very clear that the Chinese delegation has come to Cancún looking to get a balanced package. The seriousness with which they’ve approached the negotiation is notable and extremely important. I think there is also a large investment by the Chinese delegation in engaging other major players not just in the negotiation but outside the negotiation. So the amount of discussion between China and the US is encouraging. It doesn’t guarantee success but it at least makes it possible. And I think building a much stronger understanding between those two major players will help this negotiation – and a global solution – significantly.

Lu: Can you comment on the roles and contribution of civil society groups in the climate negotiation process?

RO: Quite honestly, the impact and the importance of civil society and organised civil society in the form of NGOs cannot be overstated. Governments have difficult decisions to make and if you just had governments in the room, they might find deals that would be agreeable to each other but would not meet the ultimate needs of the planet and of the people around the world. So that’s a role of civil society – to keep everyone honest.

Another role is on the transparency front. Transparency is not a magic powder, transparency is living, breathing human beings asking questions, challenging what an official says, challenging the interpretation of the facts. That role of civil society can have a very strong disciplining role.

The other area where organised civil society plays a central role is in mobilising the broader populations in home countries. If people don’t understand the gravity of these issues, they won’t put the kinds of pressure on their governments that is required. The problem with climate change is that it happens over a long period of time and just like a lobster boiling in a pot, if the water just gets warmer slowly, slowly, the lobster doesn’t quite realise it’s boiling. But in the end, the result is it’s boiled. Civil society can let us know that the temperature is rising and the lobster better be concerned about that.

So I think the role of civil society is extremely important, especially in countries like China, where there is not the same tradition, the same volume of civil society organisations in a space like this on climate change. The more robust the civil society role, the more successful we will be in this negotiation and in addressing climate change.

This interview was conducted jointly by chinadialogue and

Meng Si is associate editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office.

Lu Sze Ping, China Director of Global Campiagn for Climate Action, was interviewing on behalf of

Homepage image from the United Nations shows Robert Orr