Next Time You Come to a Climate Conference, Do Your Homework Beforehand

So once again the UN climate process has been saved. In an unprecedented display, the conference’s president rush-gavelled through the key decisions and overruled Russia’s procedural objection.

However, once again saving the process came at the expense of actually achieving substantive results. Some of the key outcomes are:

  • A second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol with commitments that are almost laughably weak. For instance, the self-proclaimed climate leader EU has committed to reducing emissions by 20% by 2020 while emissions are already at -17.5%.
  • Not even technical comparability of efforts between the Kyoto countries and those, most notably the US, that have only made voluntary emission reduction pledges. As in the past, the US strongly resisted all efforts to bring the emission accounting rules under the Convention in line with those under the Kyoto Protocol.
  • Full carry-over of the gigatonnes of surplus emission allowances from the first to the second commitment period, though with some restrictions on using them.
  • No clarity on how financial support for developing countries will be scaled up to the USD 100 billion that were promised in Copenhagen. Developing countries had demanded a clear roadmap with mid-term targets, but with the exception of some European countries most industrialised countries refused to clarify how much finance they are going to provide over the next years.
  • A work programme for the negotiation of a new comprehensive climate agreement by 2015 and for revisiting the level of ambition for the period pre-2020 that is much less specific than many had hoped.

The EU deserves a fair share of the blame for this weak outcome. Intransigence by the US and others can be taken for granted, so more progressive players need to figure out how to overcome this resistance beforehand. The success of a climate conference hinges on whether those who actually care about combating climate change are able to form coalitions and push those who don’t against the wall. Just one year ago in Durban the EU provided a demonstration of how this can be done, coming with clear asks and clear offers, on the basis of which it was able to form an alliance with the small island states, least developed countries and others and thus isolate the naysayers. In Doha, the EU came bearing an emission reduction target it basically has already achieved and no joint financial commitment and thus once again managed to turn itself into the bad guy, allowing Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and the USA to get away with their lack of commitment.

Many will probably once again blame the UN and suggest that climate change should be dealt with in other fora. However, the problem is not the process. The G20 and other fora have been dealing with climate change for years, and with the same lack of results.

The thing is that international politics do not happen in a vacuum. The positions countries take internationally are determined by their domestic political situations. International negotiations can therefore only take decisions that have previously been prepared nationally.

And the sad situation is that in most of the key countries there is as yet no appetite to undergo the fundamental economic transformation that is necessary. Energy provision and transport are dominated by strong incumbent industries whose business models rely on using fossil fuels, and combating climate change basically requires to end these business models. The vast majority of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves needs to be left underground, two thirds of them according to the latest World Energy Outlook from the International Energy Agency or even four fifths according to other analysts. Even in the short term expenditures for fossil fuels – and related business profits – would already go down dramatically. And evidently the coping strategy of the related industries has so far been to sow doubts about the reality of climate change, much as the tobacco industry disputed the cancer-causing effect of smoking for decades, and slow down the shift to renewables as much as possible rather than adapting their business models. Incidentally, countries’ positions on climate change align rather neatly with the amounts of fossil fuel reserves they have on their territories.

Progress in the international climate negotiations will therefore only be possible if sufficiently large pro-climate advocacy coalitions can be brought together in the key countries. And while it is certainly not able to the save climate on its own, the international climate process can serve as a key catalyst for the national discussions. While Copenhagen did not produce the hoped-for treaty, the deadline imposed by the Copenhagen conference injected a significant momentum into national discussions. One country after another elaborated domestic targets and actions, and presented them to the international audience. The run-up to Copenhagen hence resulted in a much better understanding of national mitigation potentials, available policy options and actions that countries are prepared to take. This momentum would hardly have materialised without the positive pressure exerted by the Copenhagen deadline. And this momentum is getting carried forward, emission reduction actions are getting implemented, even if far from the scale that is needed.

The run-up to 2015 must similarly be seized as catalyst to build national momentum. The opportunities will certainly be there, for instance the next assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change. And one of the few silver linings from Doha was the announcement by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that he would convene a world leaders’ summit on climate change in 2014. Such a summit is exactly what some analysts have called for:

“The decisions required in 2015 will be momentous: to raise collective global ambi- tion for 2020–30 to meet the 2 °C pathway; to agree a new, legally binding framework; to identify the sources of finance that can meet the goal of providing US$100 billion in climate assistance to the poorest countries by 2020; and to agree a new international collaboration on the development, demonstration and deployment of low-carbon technologies.

These decisions are not within the powers of environment ministers, and they will not happen of their own accord. They require the direct engagement of heads of government, under the full glare of a summit spotlight. And that summit requires the kind of pressure that only the coordinated mobilization of global civil society — including the scientific community, businesses, non-governmental organizations and youth movements — can achieve.”

And the pressure that needs to be put on governments to get them moving seems to be enormous, given how little difference the increasingly stark warnings even from normally staid institutions like the IEA and the World Bank, who in a recent report warned of “cataclysmic changes”, have so far made. The below quote from a speech Churchill gave in Parliament in 1936 sounds as if it had been written for today’s situation:

“So they [the Government] go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent…. Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger….  The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close.  In its place we are entering a period of consequences….  We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now….”

It seems as if it’s up to each one of us to take up Churchill’s mantle and get to work  raking our governments over the coals, given that there’s no politician in sight who would fit the bill.

Related Posts:

What Are the Crunch Issues at the Doha Climate Conference?

Bill McKibben Urges Anti-Apartheid-Style Divestment Campaign Against Fossil Fuel Industry

On the Road Again – Wuppertal Institute Assessment of the Durban Conference

Leave a comment


  1. Sandbag

     /  December 10, 2012

    Great article!

    On thing, by our calculation the EU has already surpassed it’s -20% target.

    See the following article:

    • Thanks for the positive feedback! And thanks for reminding me of your figures on the 20%. I had seen them and will be sure to include them in the Wuppertal report on the COP.


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