Climate Diplomats Get Undiplomatic in Public: The ‘Dark Cloud’ Hanging Over the UNFCCC: T&F (1)

By Mathew Carr

Dec. 11, 2020 — LONDON : Four former United Nations climate diplomats are getting a little undiplomatic.

Four senior UN figures have outlined in an opinion piece what’s going on with global climate protection and why. No one comes away unscathed, even the UN process itself.

Richard Kinley, Michael Zammit Cutajar, Yvo de Boer and Christiana Figueres co-authored a piece published on Taylor & Francis online.

See link below.

Here are some highlights, comments on the dire climate situation …and a splash of hope:

‘For the global North, it challenges complacent democracies to look beyond their electoral noses towards long-term planetary security. For all players, it requires traditionally defensive negotiators to lift their sights from burdens to opportunities and to the fate of future generations.’


‘The imminent return of the US to the Paris Agreement under a more supportive presidency is welcome indeed, but concerns must remain about the reliability of a country that has so often flip-flopped on such a crucial global issue.’

‘A more optimistic scenario, based on recent announcements targeting net zero or carbon neutrality (including from China and US President-elect Biden) would bring this down to 2.1°C. This more optimistic assessment should not, however, induce complacency in converting distant targets into immediate and effective action plans. The NDCs need to be significantly strengthened.’

One cannot, however, declare victory on so-called ‘means of implementation’ in light of the strong arguments from developing countries and activists pointing to inadequacy of funding, delays, undue conditionalities, double counting, mixed signals, and disputes over what qualifies as ‘climate finance’.

‘This evolution of the UNFCCC process from being solely a negotiation platform to also being a stage is one of the most significant, and positive, changes over the last three decades.’

‘Before we can seriously contemplate climate change ‘heaven’, we need to get off the current road to ‘hell’, even if it is paved with good intentions!’

The reporting of information on adaptation and on financial and technological support, while useful, is not as comprehensive as that for emissions. This exacerbates the political tensions on these subjects.

‘The effective mobilization of heads of state and government, bringing in their entire government apparatus, has so far been insufficient’

‘There is a very dark cloud hanging over the UNFCCC process and the wider multilateral response to the climate crisis – namely global CO2 emissions are more than 65% higher now than they were in 1990.’

‘At the heart of the problem is the failure by states to implement their commitments, all too often paying only lip-service to what needs to be done, as well as the hesitation of too many in the business community to act on the policy signals being sent.’

‘Multilateral discussion of creative, and even controversial, ideas to supplement the current toolkit of measures would also be appropriate, including: the role of internationally-coordinated carbon or pollution pricing at a level sufficient to shift economic incentives in favour of low-carbon options; taxes and eco-tariffs; real action rather than lip service on removal of fossil fuel subsidies’

“Whereas in its early years the UNFCCC process was ahead of public consciousness, it now lags behind, a phenomenon that we regret.”

***********

Other organisations have also come out criticising countries, especially those most responsible for climate change. See this from Oxfam on the importance of consumption emissions – ie those GHG imported via goods. Even in climate-hawkish regions, there is deep unfairness. See this:

https://carrzee.org/2020/12/08/poorer-europeans-seen-cutting-emissions-while-richest-boosted-pollution/

See this, for the envoys’ opinion:
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14693062.2020.1860567?scroll=top&needAccess=true

And below for text:

TEXT from authors:

The authors, who have all held senior positions in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat, take critical stock of what has been achieved since the negotiations were launched 30 years ago in December 1990. The assessment is made against seven functions or roles of multilateral processes (e.g. developing international law, setting goals, and supporting developing countries), and based on clear-eyed expectations of what multilateralism can and cannot do in a world of sovereign states and powerful economic interests. The authors point to some important successes, but also serious shortcomings, particularly in terms of failure of governments to deliver on agreed goals, and inadequate action and coordination within the UN system. The authors conclude that continuing at the pace of the last 30 years is unthinkable.

Key policy insights

  • The international climate change negotiations have successfully delivered three landmark treaties, providing the basis for a coherent international response to the climate crisis, but their impact is constrained by the realities of the multilateral system.
  • Particular successes include the climate treaties’ goals – especially the UNFCCC’s ultimate objective and Paris Agreement’s temperature rise thresholds and ‘global net zero’ target – systems for data sharing and transparency and growing engagement of stakeholders.
  • The principal shortcoming is failure by governments to fully implement treaty obligations, exacerbated by the still inadequate response of the business community. The rate of global emission growth over the 30-year period testifies to this failure, with the levels of support to developing countries also falling short of what is required.
  • The principal role of the multilateral climate change negotiations must now be to promote full implementation of agreed commitments and ensuing national actions. Maximum use should be made of every mandated deadline. International agreement on clear and precise targets for 2030 and 2050 will be important, but only if accompanied by strong and specific policies.
  • ‘Business as usual’ in climate change negotiations will mean failure to avoid dangerous climate change. Fuller engagement by leaders is crucial to ensuring an all-of-government approach. The UNFCCC process should address its unwieldiness and act in line with the urgency of the issue.

Introduction

21 December 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the launch of international negotiations on climate change. United Nations General Assembly resolution 45/212 on ‘The protection of global climate for present and future generations of mankind’ not only launched negotiations for ‘an effective framework convention on climate change’. It signified that climate change was no longer ‘just’ an issue for scientists and activists or for small specialized conferences. 1 Rather, it had become an issue of global political and economic importance requiring international agreement. 2

The negotiations thus unleashed have run beyond predictable tensions between economy and environment, South and North, historical responsibility and current capability – tensions exacerbated by strong economic interests in preserving the fossil-fuel-based economy. For the poorest billions, protecting the global climate places the hardships of vulnerability – be it to flooding, drought or desertification – against the need for increased energy access to reduce poverty. For the global South, it highlights the political inadequacy of lumping together least developed countries and small islands with emerging major economies. For the global North, it challenges complacent democracies to look beyond their electoral noses towards long-term planetary security. For all players, it requires traditionally defensive negotiators to lift their sights from burdens to opportunities and to the fate of future generations. What is more, this climatic wave started rolling at the outset of major geopolitical shifts: the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the eastward stretch of the European Union along with its growing supranational character, the gigantic re-emergence of China as a global heavyweight, and the refocusing of the United States (US) toward the Pacific Ocean.

This negotiating process resulted in three universal or near-universal treaties:

  1. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, adopted 1992, in force 1994, 197 Parties) recognized the potentially dangerous impact of climate change caused by human activity; stated principles to guide the response to that danger, with developed countries taking the lead; indicated a first aim for developed countries to return their emissions to 1990 levels by 2000; and started up a system for all countries to communicate information about their national responses.
  2. The Kyoto Protocol (adopted 1997, in force 2004, 192 Parties), building on the principle of developed country leadership, set out legally-binding emission targets for developed countries 3 , while injecting a large degree of flexibility into their implementation. 4
  3. The Paris Agreement (adopted 2015, in force 2016, 189 Parties) was carefully crafted to advance provisions of the Convention. It indicates collective goals for climate security – temperature increase thresholds of 2°C and 1.5°C, net zero emissions in the second half of this century – and provides for their achievement through five-year cycles of nationally-determined contributions (NDCs) to be pledged by all countries, with increasing ambition in their successive iterations, recognizing that action by developing countries will take longer and require support.

We consider this an opportune moment to reflect on what has been achieved, and not achieved, after 30 years of international negotiations on climate change, and with 30 years remaining before the milestone year of 2050. We do so based on our over-40 years of collective experience as Executive Secretaries and Deputy Executive Secretary of the secretariat to the UNFCCC, plus our years in national delegations, activism and the United Nations. We offer this contribution from a basis of respect and affection for the UNFCCC process and the secretariat colleagues we worked with for many years, but more importantly with a critical (even self-critical) eye to what has been achieved in multilateral work on climate change and where this work has fallen short. Finally, we will offer some reflections on the future.

We base our assessment on a set of roles or functions of intergovernmental or multilateral processes – what such processes can be reasonably expected to deliver. In an international system based on the sovereignty of nation states, multilateral processes can ‘deliver’ commitments but not their implementation. They can ‘influence’ more than ‘control’, with their impacts being more indirect than direct. Multilateral negotiations and international cooperation alone will not ‘save the planet’, but they are an essential adjunct to national government responsibility and business and civil society initiative.

In this context, we have identified seven functions or roles of such multilateral processes, drawing on relevant typologies used for such assessments 5 :

  1. Developing international law and setting rules and standards
  2. Establishing globally-agreed goals and sending signals
  3. Enabling data sharing, promoting transparency and encouraging accountability
  4. Promoting awareness and learning
  5. Facilitating the provision of means of implementation and support
  6. Building engagement of stakeholders
  7. Contributing to raising global ambition.

In undertaking this assessment, we have decided to look at the wider multilateral response to climate change, beyond the immediate UNFCCC process. Although the UNFCCC process, with its formal and ‘informal’ components, will be at the centre of the analysis, we will also touch on the financial mechanism of the Convention as well as the roles of the UN system and other international organizations.

1. Developing international law and setting rules and standards

As noted above, the climate change negotiations have resulted in three universal or near-universal treaties. Given the realities of multilateralism and of geopolitics, not to mention the complexity of the climate change issue and the interests at play, this is a significant achievement – all the more so because the three treaties were negotiated within the deadlines specified in their mandates, and adopted to considerable acclaim. 6 Admittedly, each of the final negotiating sessions went overtime by one day! That two of the treaties entered into force quickly is also noteworthy (Paris Agreement in 11 months, UNFCCC in 22 months, but the Kyoto Protocol required over 6 years owing to the need to have clarity on its implementation details). Agreement on each of the treaties has also been followed by in-depth negotiations of the ensuing ‘rule books’ that set out how the provisions should be implemented, including on the provision of data, national reporting, compliance processes, and the so-called ‘flexibility’ mechanisms. 7

The regime has thus developed a significant body of international law. We continue to be impressed by the foresightedness of the Convention text, despite the rather obtuse formulation of certain commitments. Its objective and principles remain remarkably compelling. The principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC) is in many ways the cornerstone of the multilateral climate change process reflecting the ethical basis of the endeavour. It has also, however, been a key fault line of negotiation for the entire 30-year period, with perhaps too much emphasis on ‘differentiated’ and not enough on ‘common’. The addition of ‘in the light of different national circumstances’ in the Paris Agreement (Article 2.2) was crucial in keeping the principle and the process alive. 8

The precautionary principle, the right to promote sustainable development, and respect for the special needs and circumstances of developing countries are other critical climate change principles included in Convention Article 3. The UNFCCC thus provides the enduring ‘constitution’ for the global climate change negotiations that have followed.

The UNFCCC negotiations have always been marked by the reality of needing the major emitters to be part of any agreement. This has been especially true in terms of securing the support of the US – as a top emitter, the leading world economy, and a technological powerhouse – for adoption of the three treaties. 9 Despite these efforts, the specific domestic realities in the US made its ratification of the Kyoto Protocol impossible, and could not prevent its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The imminent return of the US to the Paris Agreement under a more supportive presidency is welcome indeed, but concerns must remain about the reliability of a country that has so often flip-flopped on such a crucial global issue. While making every effort to bring in the US, other governments of the world have demonstrated their determination to forge ahead without it, if need be, in the expectation that economic forces unleashed by the climate treaties would eventually drive climate action also in the US. In the last decade, the importance of China’s engagement has come to the fore and will only continue to grow, with the need for it to play a strong leadership role in negotiations and act together with the US, the European Union and indeed all the world’s nations, especially the largest emitters.

There had been an early expectation among many, especially in the media and among the public, that the 15th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) in Copenhagen (2009) would also result in additional legal agreements under the Convention and the Protocol. 10 However, in the face of strong differences among governments, unmanageable texts, fundamental process failures and an erosion of political will in the wake of the 2008/2009 global financial crisis, the conference concluded in rancour, without any formal agreement but with an informal ‘Accord’. This Copenhagen Accord, however, did capture several critical understandings on substantive and political issues – notably the 2°C temperature increase threshold – making Copenhagen a ‘successful failure’. 11 Ultimately, the failure was one of process rather than substance.

The Copenhagen experience led to deep soul searching in the process and questions about the effectiveness of the multilateral process. However, there also ensued a determination among governments to ‘get things back on track’. 12 With very careful but bold political leadership, the ‘Cancun Agreements’ at COP 16 (2010) captured in a formal conference decision the ‘informal’ gains from Copenhagen, built on them and set the stage for the next ultimately successful phase of negotiations.

2. Establishing globally-agreed goals and sending signals

The UNFCCC process has, after tough negotiations, developed compelling globally-agreed goals. These goals have been built and agreed incrementally through the three treaties, with increasing precision and often moving through an informal phase before being enshrined in a legal agreement. 13 The Convention’s far-sighted objective to ‘achieve stabilization’ of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations ‘at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’ (Article 2) set the tone from the outset, albeit without defining ‘dangerous’ or providing a quantitative timeframe. The Paris Agreement’s mitigation goals, namely temperature increase thresholds of ‘well below 2°C’ and ‘pursuing efforts’ to not exceed 1.5°C, together with the idea of carbon neutrality ‘in the second half’ of the twenty-first century, mark a progression in the direction of clarity and measurability. Recently, these internationally-agreed goals have underpinned national legal action to push governments to be more aggressive in their emission reduction policies – a welcome development. The Paris Agreement also broke new ground by including a ‘global goal on adaptation’, a key demand of developing countries.

At the national level, the Kyoto Protocol established legally-binding targets for developed countries while the Paris Agreement formalized the pledging of NDCs by all countries. To date, however, both national targets under the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement NDCs have been inconsistent with the action needed to meet the Convention’s objective and the Paris Agreement’s mitigation goals. Based on NDCs submitted by governments, the December 2020 update of the Climate Action Tracker (CAT, www.climateactiontracker.org) projects a temperature rise of about 2.6°C by 2100. A more optimistic scenario, based on recent announcements targeting net zero or carbon neutrality (including from China and US President-elect Biden) would bring this down to 2.1°C. This more optimistic assessment should not, however, induce complacency in converting distant targets into immediate and effective action plans. The NDCs need to be significantly strengthened in the current and future rounds of submissions, and then decisively implemented, if the global goals are to be met.

In addition to these goals, the process has also sent important signals over its 30 years of existence – beginning with the fact that there is an international process at all. The provisions of the three treaties, as well as the visibility of large annual conferences and associated events, have undoubtedly influenced national policies and led to the passing of climate change laws, including the development of national and EU emissions trading systems (e.g. see Fankhauser et al., 2016; Iacobuta et al., 2018). The Paris Agreement sent clear signals to the business community and other economic actors about the direction of future development (Falkner, 2016). The ‘informal space’ provided to often ambitious stakeholders, parallel to formal intergovernmental meetings, has played an increasingly important role over the last decade, signalling that viable, cost-effective solutions to the climate problem exist, and that they are being deployed. This ‘climate action agenda’ has also, along with wider communication efforts, contributed to changing the narrative on climate change away from burden sharing to one of ‘opportunity’ and ‘possibility’. The understanding has also taken root that a low-carbon, climate resilient economy is the only safe way to meet development imperatives, buttressed by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in the same year as the Paris Agreement.

3. Enabling data sharing, promoting transparency and encouraging accountability

One of the strongest successes of the UNFCCC regime rests in the system of submission of emission data and national reporting going back over 25 years, with the UNFCCC secretariat playing a central role as repository and information manager. The resulting body of data is solid and credible, and contributes to transparency and accountability. The process of reviewing the information, which has evolved and been improved over the years, is also noteworthy, including for the way that the three treaties have been carefully integrated to avoid overlap in this domain. Outside the formal process, the tracking of progress on ‘informal’ undertakings by governments, businesses and other stakeholders remains challenging (e.g. see Hale et al., 2020). However, new digitalized tracking and transparency technologies that have recently evolved could become useful in further improving data management and countering so-called ‘greenwashing’.

The reporting of information on adaptation and on financial and technological support, while useful, is not as comprehensive as that for emissions. This exacerbates the political tensions on these subjects. 14

The ‘bite’ of the accountability system lies in ‘public shaming’ rather than policing. While the Kyoto Protocol established a relatively strong compliance regime, the experience has not been particularly productive and governments remain highly averse to intrusive compliance processes, preferring ‘facilitative and non-confrontational’ mechanisms. Nevertheless, the transparency system under the UNFCCC treaties is a model for other processes, not least because it transparently records shortcomings in shifting global emission trends.

4. Promoting awareness and learning

In a time of disrespect for science in some quarters, it is worth emphasizing that the UNFCCC grew out of a scientific process, and that intergovernmental commitments have been strengthened based on regular scientific advice from a competent, and rather remarkable, international scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel in Climate Change (IPCC). While the multilateral climate process is in theory ‘science-based’ 15 , and it has been some time since any UNFCCC negotiators questioned that there is a climate problem, negotiations are by definition about political and economic interests. Nevertheless, the negotiating process has continued to seek advice from the IPCC on key topics, in addition to relying on its periodic assessment reports, of which the sixth is now in preparation. 16 Moreover, the inclusion of the 2°C/1.5°C thresholds in the Paris Agreement was founded on science, as has been the work on the implications of these goals (IPCC, 2018). One sees in this experience that science is dynamic and inexorably marches on in its ‘search for truth’, while treaties cannot be so readily updated and negotiations struggle to keep up as they must.

In addition to the IPCC, associated international processes and institutions have also been instrumental in creating and diffusing scientific, economic and technical knowledge to provide the basis for policy action against climate change. This includes the work of numerous UN system bodies 17 , development banks, and agencies like the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and many others, with the increased understanding of economic imperatives being especially noteworthy.

The multilateral regime has also evolved based on experience and learning. 18 One can see this in the strengthened goals, in evolving and new institutions, and in the way commitments have been further elaborated in successive agreements. For example, the inclusion of references to human rights, migrants, gender equality, just transition and the SDGs in the Paris Agreement’s preamble, along with much greater emphasis on adaptation, all testify to this evolutionary learning.

5. Facilitating the provision of means of implementation and support

Facilitating the provision of financial, technological and capacity-building support to assist developing countries and support implementation of treaties gives effect to the principle of equity and is one of the most fundamental functions of any contemporary multilateral regime. These elements have been central to the climate change negotiations from day one and are at the core of the treaties. 19 They reflect the huge disparities between countries not only in emissions (gross and per capita) but also in the capacity to undertake action.

In addition to resources provided under the financial mechanism of the Convention 20 , multilateral and bilateral support to developing countries has undoubtedly increased significantly over the 30-year period. The decision in the Cancun Agreements to establish a new Green Climate Fund, along with the commitment of developed countries to ‘mobilizing jointly USD 100 billion per year by 2020’, have been key achievements in seeking to boost financial support for developing countries.

One cannot, however, declare victory on so-called ‘means of implementation’ in light of the strong arguments from developing countries and activists pointing to inadequacy of funding, delays, undue conditionalities, double counting, mixed signals, and disputes over what qualifies as ‘climate finance’. All this has generated understandable scepticism over the extent of progress towards the USD 100 billion target 21 , exacerbating an already difficult situation to the point where this already highly-politicised topic has become toxic in intergovernmental discussions.

The historic gap in funding for adaptation measures, partly due to arcane debates about how to distinguish between ‘global’ and ‘local’ costs and benefits, presents a continuing challenge, as adaptation to the unfolding impacts of climate change becomes increasingly critical. In current economic thinking it is difficult to value the economic benefits of adaptation, or of disaster avoidance, and investments therein. Although it faces numerous challenges, the development of a new ‘business model’ for adaptation based on investment instead of ‘charity’ is urgent.

It is worth recalling that the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a creation of the Kyoto Protocol, opened a new and innovative channel for the delivery of investment for mitigation in developing economies, and for raising adaptation finance. Although not without its imperfections, for many years the CDM was an important contributor to enabling, and building confidence in, a ‘greener’ development path. 22

All this to say that while progress has been made in advancing this role of supporting developing countries in their response to climate change, there is still a very long way to go before the Convention principle of equity can be said to have been achieved. A wider ‘greening’ of investment flows is also important, in line with the Paris Agreement’s call to make ‘finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development’ (Article 2.1(c)).

6. Building engagement of stakeholders

Building on the modest foundation of Convention obligations to promote public participation (Article 6), as well as traditional UN approaches to ‘stakeholders’ (that is, essentially as observers), the UNFCCC process has, in parallel to formal discussions, progressively advanced their engagement not only in the negotiations (albeit still as observers), but more importantly as role models, advocates and leaders of the economic transformation. The scope and scale of stakeholder engagement in the lead up to, during, and since the Paris Conference is testament to an innovative approach whereby non-state actors – such as businesses, financial institutions, cities and regions, environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), think tanks, sectoral organizations, gender groups, trade-unions, and more – champion, advertise and enable climate action. This evolution of the UNFCCC process from being solely a negotiation platform to also being a stage is one of the most significant, and positive, changes over the last three decades. 23

While the voice of environmental advocacy organizations has always been important, in the meeting rooms and on the ‘streets’, that voice has become louder and more widespread in recent years, as exemplified by the tremendous mobilization around Fridays for Future, with young people in the forefront. It is also fundamentally important that the voice of business in and around the multilateral climate change process has shifted. Where once fossil fuel interests predominated as voices of opposition, the business voice is now much more oriented to the need for change, sustainability, new opportunities, and asset protection from climate change.

One area where we would have liked to see more effective ‘stakeholder’ engagement is in mobilizing the entire UN system towards a more coordinated and impactful collaboration in promoting implementation of the climate change treaties, especially at country level. We see this as a shortcoming of the UNFCCC secretariat, of the wider UN system organizations too often hindered by interagency rivalries, and of UN Secretaries-General. At the UNFCCC secretariat, we should have done more, and earlier, to seek engagement with partner organizations, not just the so-called Rio Conventions 24 but especially the wider sectoral organizations. 25 Part of this shortcoming can be attributed to the general failure, at least until recently in some countries, to successfully turn climate change from a single (weak) ministry issue into an all-of-government priority, and even to lead ministries ‘protecting turf’ and resisting the engagement of economic ministries.

In 2007, the UNFCCC secretariat was able to convince UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, after some hesitation in New York over political risks, to become engaged in the climate change issue. Since then, public diplomacy by Mr. Ban and current Secretary-General António Guterres, connecting with heads of state and government largely through bilateral discussions and periodic leaders’ summits, has been helpful in raising the political profile of climate change. However, the full potential of this engagement strategy has not yet been realized and the effective mobilization of heads of state and government, bringing in their entire government apparatus, has so far been insufficient. We would also like to see the Secretary-General playing a stronger role in insisting upon the UN system working together more effectively, especially at country level.

7. Contributing to raising global ambition

It is uncontested that the multilateral climate process has contributed to raising global ambition in responding to climate change as regards to both emissions and financial support – from a Framework Convention containing general obligations, to a Protocol with country-specific targets, albeit for a limited group of countries, to an Agreement with ambitious collective goals and flexible national implementation provisions for all countries, with a built-in mechanism to raise national ambition over time.

That being said, there is a very dark cloud hanging over the UNFCCC process and the wider multilateral response to the climate crisis – namely global CO2 emissions are more than 65% higher now than they were in 1990 (Crippa et al., 2020). 26 Although the rate of growth in emissions has slowed down, the trend line is far from the steep downward curve needed. 27 The politically-convenient ambiguity endemic to most multilateral processes (on all topics), traceable to the reality of state sovereignty and the ever-present ‘anarchy’ that famously characterizes international relations, compounded by the retrograde actions of various vested interests, partly explain this sorry reality. However, at the heart of the problem is the failure by states to implement their commitments, all too often paying only lip-service to what needs to be done, as well as the hesitation of too many in the business community to act on the policy signals being sent. While there are some signs of change of late, these are still too few to give confidence that the speed and scale of change will be sufficient to achieve the Convention’s objective of preventing ‘dangerous interference with the climate system’. Truth will be told in the coming round of new NDCs under the Paris Agreement, which are now starting to be submitted in advance of the rescheduled COP 26 (Glasgow), and in actual delivery on ‘green new deals’ and ‘recover better’ strategies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While rhetoric has become increasingly ambitious, and some new pledges of emission reductions and carbon neutrality are encouraging, implementation efforts in many countries will need to be watched carefully. 28

Conclusions: towards the next 30 years

It is 30 years to 2050, by which time the world needs to be within striking distance of climate neutrality (global net zero emissions), if not already there. Justifiable pride can be taken in the incremental accomplishments of international climate change cooperation since 1990, but it is unthinkable to continue at the pace of the last 30 years. The multilateral process has made significant progress in fulfilling the seven functions we identified above, even if this progress has been uneven and, in some cases, disappointing. The biggest failure of the past 30 years, however, has been in implementation, and this needs to be corrected urgently. This will take concerted action:

  • by governments to raise significantly the ambition of their NDCs and to act domestically with all means at their disposal to ensure full implementation, with the largest emitters and wealthiest countries bearing the most responsibility;
  • by developed countries and multilateral financial institutions to support developing countries and ensure a just response to the climate challenge that secures sustainable energy access for all, supports adaptation and advances sustainable development; and
  • by business, the finance sector and major economic actors to change the trajectory of development in the direction of what is now nearly universally accepted as a sustainable path, accelerating technological trends already underway while ensuring a just transition for workers.

We are unequivocal in advocating greater ambition and action by national governments – in law and policy, financing, reconciling competing interests and providing leadership at the highest levels across all sectors. While critical, this alone is insufficient. The task at hand is of such a magnitude that simultaneous action by the business and finance sectors, local and regional governments, and other civil society actors, each within their areas of expertise or responsibility, is imperative. In this, we are mindful that many large corporations have direct control over a greater share of greenhouse gas emissions than do many national governments.

The world can look to the UNFCCC process and multilateral organizations to support this transition through dialogue, cooperation, the sharing of information and of best practices, technical cooperation, keeping the spotlight on positive action, and holding governments and others accountable for delivery on what they have promised. New treaties are not required in the near term. The focus must be on concrete action and how this can be facilitated, promoted and supported. 29 Multilateral discussion of creative, and even controversial, ideas to supplement the current toolkit of measures would also be appropriate, including: the role of internationally-coordinated carbon or pollution pricing at a level sufficient to shift economic incentives in favour of low-carbon options; taxes and eco-tariffs; real action rather than lip service on removal of fossil fuel subsidies 30 and phasing-out coal; and engaging the full spectrum of sectors and government departments in finding and implementing solutions. New alliances and agreements in specific economic sectors, international cooperation on implementation, and even formal agreements on some such matters may eventually become important for governments.

In this context, UNFCCC negotiators need to evaluate the functioning of their process, which, in its formal work and agendas, has become unwieldy and routinized, heavy in its carbon footprint, and out of step with the scale of urgency. Whereas in its early years the UNFCCC process was ahead of public consciousness, it now lags behind, a phenomenon that we regret. Governments need to determine where intergovernmental effort can best be placed to facilitate action and help achieve real impacts.

We know from experience that deadlines matter. While negotiation deadlines have been (broadly) respected since 1990, emission and funding targets have been seen more as ‘indicative’. This must change. Target dates already in the official calendar include:

  • 2020 – For the submission of revised, or updated, NDCs (decision 1/CP.21, paras 23 and 24) and mid-century long-term low-emission development strategies (decision 1/CP.21, para. 35)
  • 2023 – The first ‘Global Stocktake’ under Article 14 of the Paris Agreement (and every five years thereafter)
  • 2050 – The ‘destination’ point for mid-century development strategies and the beginning of the ‘second half of this century’ for the achievement of global net zero (Paris Agreement, Article 4.1).

A strategy is needed to ensure that each of these deadlines leads to enhanced action on the ground and not simply more headlines of the moment. We recommend the establishment of a 2030 interim target, reflecting the scientific finding that, in order to have a good chance of not exceeding the 1.5°C temperature increase threshold, a halving of net CO2 emissions 31 by 2030 (from 2010 levels) is needed (IPCC, 2018: SPM, C1). This would provide an important medium-term milestone in tracking progress towards net zero, which could be assessed at the 2033 Global Stocktake. Moreover, similarly guided by the IPCC’s conclusions, we support agreement on pinning down 2050 as the target year for achieving global net zero emissions, bringing a cutting edge to the Paris Agreement’s timeframe ‘in the second half of this century’. In both cases, however, countries and business sector actors must commit to their own targets with clear implementation plans in place. Pledges and distant targets alone are no longer sufficient. In action to halve global emissions by 2030 and achieve global net zero by 2050, leadership by developed countries will be critical so as to protect ‘space for development and poverty reduction’ in developing countries, especially the least developed among them.

In keeping with our respect for, and confidence in, the United Nations, we emphasize the key role of the UN Secretary-General as an important advocate for engagement by heads of state and government, encouraging them to truly make climate change an all-government priority and to move beyond ‘window dressing’. This is especially urgent in placing climate change policy at the heart of COVID-19 pandemic recovery strategies. The Secretary-General can also press economic actors to move more aggressively in changing their business models and practices.

Former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld famously quipped that ‘the United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell’. 32 His reminder of practical political realities can also be applied to the international climate change negotiations. But before we can seriously contemplate climate change ‘heaven’, we need to get off the current road to ‘hell’, even if it is paved with good intentions! Concrete and full implementation of already agreed commitments is the essential prerequisite for climate ‘salvation’.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Notes

1 Climate change had been an issue of growing scientific analysis and discussion with the intensity of work increasing over the preceding two decades. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) had hosted two major ‘world climate conferences’ in 1979 and 1990. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established in 1988 by the WMO and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), had issued its first assessment of scientific knowledge in 1990. Numerous other conferences, increasingly political and ministerial in character, had taken place through the 1980s as the climate change issue grew in prominence. Also in 1988, Malta put the subject on the agenda of the General Assembly whose resolution that year recognized climate change as a ‘common concern of mankind’. For more on the early history of the climate change regime, see Bodansky (1993) and Mintzer and Leonard (1994).

2 The consideration that climate change was an ‘economic’ or ‘development’ issue rather than an ‘environmental’ one was behind the determination of key governments to place negotiations on the issue under the UN General Assembly, and with an independent secretariat, rather than to use the services of UNEP as, for example, was the case for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the treaties to combat stratospheric ozone depletion.

3 These emission targets were not determined based on any global top-down process, but were decided by the respective individual developed countries. The ‘at least 5%’ overall emission reduction below 1990 levels stated in Article 3.1 is the arithmetical sum of the different developed country targets, which the Chair of the negotiations wanted to include in the Protocol for credibility purposes.

4 The Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol (2012) will enter into force on the last day of the Protocol’s second commitment period, that is, 31 December 2020, an amazing demonstration of the UNFCCC tradition of last minute delivery. There will, however, be no ‘third commitment period’ of the Kyoto Protocol, which will cease to have any practical effect as focus shifts to the Paris Agreement.

5 We draw, in particular, on work by Obergassel et al. (2020) and Young and Levy (1999).

6 UNFCCC negotiations: February 1991–May 1992, to enable the agreement to be open for signature at the Rio Conference on Environment and Development (the ‘Earth Summit’, June 1992) – 15 months. Kyoto Protocol negotiations: launched April 1995 to be concluded at the third session of the COP (December 1997) – 2.5 years. Paris Agreement negotiations: launched 2011 to be concluded by 2015 (COP 21) – 4 years.

7 The Kyoto flexibility, or market, mechanisms were designed to provide flexibility in implementation of commitments through the international transfer of greenhouse gas credits. They were composed of ‘joint implementation’ (Article 6), the CDM (Article 12), and emissions trading (Article 17). Article 6 of the Paris Agreement builds on them, now with a greater focus on achieving sustainable development benefits.

8 The latter understanding was one result of the critically-important high-level collaboration between the US and China in the lead up to, and at, COP 21.

9 The most striking examples include the wording of Article 4.2 (a) and (b) of the Convention, the framing of large sections of the Kyoto Protocol (especially the inclusion of carbon markets and other elements of flexibility), and the use of ‘shall’ and ‘should’ in the Paris Agreement.

10 Despite the pre-Copenhagen hype encapsulated in the slogan ‘Seal the deal!’, most countries had accepted before the Conference opened that a ‘deal’ would not take the form of legally binding outcomes, either under the Convention or the Kyoto Protocol (the politically-important ‘twins’ in parallel negotiating processes). Rather, it had been accepted that the best that could be achieved was a package of COP and CMP decisions on the important topics.

11 These understandings also included a funding mobilization target of USD 100 billion per year by 2020 for support to developing countries as well as a signal towards 1.5°C. Following the Accord, countries whose emissions accounted for some three quarters of the global total made national emission limitation pledges.

12 The Copenhagen experience also led to important improvements in the negotiation process to enhance openness, transparency and the legitimacy of results, which paid off handsomely in the Paris COP.

13 The movement from the informal Copenhagen Accord, which was not accepted by all, to the Cancun Agreements (a COP decision) to the Paris Agreement (a treaty) is particularly notable. The inclusion of reference to a 1.5°C limit and carbon neutrality in the Paris Agreement constitute significant advances resulting from the determined and effective advocacy of proponent governments (especially by the small island developing countries) and civil society, as well as the strong sense of solidarity present during the Paris negotiations.

14 E.g. see Weikmans and Roberts (2019); and Berrang-Ford et al. (2019).

15 See UNFCCC Article 5, along with numerous references to scientific information throughout the Convention.

16 The IPCC has produced a number of special reports, including on 1.5°C, adaptation, and land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) that have been instrumental in guiding negotiations.

17 Examples include UNDP’s work on capacity building, UNEP’s work on supporting the development of national climate legislation, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) secretariat’s work on emissions trading, and WHO’s work on air pollution and climate change as health issues.

18 Indeed, the promotion of ‘education, training and public awareness’ is enshrined as a general commitment in both the UNFCCC (Article 6) and Paris Agreement (Article 12).

19 For example, UN General Assembly resolution 45/212 from 1990, in its first preambular paragraph, refers to taking into account ‘the particular needs and development priorities of developing countries’. Convention Article 3.4 commits developed countries to providing ‘new and additional financial resources’ to developing countries to meet certain costs of their obligations. See also Kyoto Protocol Article 11 and Paris Agreement Article 9.

20 There are two operating entities of the financial mechanism. The Global Environment Facility, which predates the Convention but serves it (and other environmental agreements), constituted a modest first step in implementing the commitment to support implementation by developing countries. The Green Climate Fund, launched in 2010, had a slow start but has become a more significant part of the financial architecture of climate change multilateralism.

21 For assessments on progress towards the USD 100 billion target, see OECD (2019) and Oxfam (2020).

22 There is a vast literature on the CDM, pointing to both its achievements and shortcomings. See for example Hultman et al (2020) and references therein, along with UN Climate Change (2018).

23 UNFCCC secretariat data reveal that there has been a huge increase in participation in the formal process by observers. COP 1 formally ‘admitted’ 163 NGOs and 14 intergovernmental organizations. By the time of COP 22, these numbers had risen to 2133 and 126 respectively. In terms of actual numbers of participants, just under 1000 representatives of NGOs attended COP 1 in 1995. Recent COPs have seen numbers of NGO participants range from approximately 6200 (Paris, COP 21) to 7700 (Bonn, COP 22), despite the fact that registration quotas had to be put in place after the chaos arising from 12,000 registered NGO participants in Copenhagen for COP 15.

24 CBD and Convention to Combat Desertification and Drought (UNCCD).

25 One clear example of the weakness of action relates to the issue of the significant emissions from international aviation and shipping. The slow and half-hearted responses of governments and industry acting through their representatives in ICAO and the International Maritime Organization (IMO), despite these organizations being specifically mentioned in the Kyoto Protocol, is shameful.

26 Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have risen from 354 ppm in 1990 to 415 ppm in 2019, with ‘stabilization’ not yet on the horizon.

27 Global Carbon Project (2019). Some recent data (e.g. IEA, 2019) suggest that global emissions may have peaked in 2019. Confirmation of this will require a bit more time, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic impacts have led to a significant decline in global emissions in 2020.

28 Too many pandemic response and recovery support packages, while sometimes touting green objectives, have maintained a business-as-usual approach to subsidizing the fossil fuel and aviation industries. See also – Energy Policy Tracker – Track funds for energy in recovery packages.

29 Bringing to conclusion the outstanding ‘rule book’ negotiations on the implementation of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement is important. They should be completed without further delay to provide an enhanced role for effective market mechanisms.

30 The issue of fossil fuel subsidies is a particularly striking example of implementation failure. In the face of compelling economic arguments, the Group of 20 (G20) countries committed to ‘rationalize and phase out over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’ in 2009. Ten years later, such subsidies in G20 countries still stand at USD 150 billion annually (IISD, 2019).

31 With similar cuts for the other greenhouse gases.

32 Address by Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld at University of California Convocation, Berkeley, 13 May 1954.Previous articleView latest articlesNext article

(Updated with new quotes Saturday evening.)

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