How to Accommodate 9 Billion and Save the Environment – Part I

Crises anticipated from climate change won’t wait for political action. This YaleGlobal series examines the challenges awaiting political leaders seeking solutions to a global problem that requires tough decisions on new energy policies, investments and consumption. In the first of two articles, Yvo De Boer, former executive secretary for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and global advisor on the issue, describes distrust among nations that led to the failure of the Copenhagen summit. In a highly interconnected world with discussions stretching over decades, small adjustments in energy policies or carbon emissions create winners and losers. Maneuvering for competitive advantage is so intense that setting agendas for talks has evolved into a long process; developed countries refuse to accept terms approved by previous conventions, and developing nations hedge on monitoring, reporting and verification. De Boer concludes, that “the long and bumpy road of climate negotiations is littered with broken promises” and setting off on the path of sustainable development entails hard choices. – YaleGlobal

How to Accommodate 9 Billion and Save the Environment – Part I

Nations increasingly recognize that managing climate change is a global endeavor
Yvo De Boer
Thursday, August 25, 2011

Overcoming distrust: Western leaders from EU’s José Manuel Barroso (left) to Barack Obama tried in vain to save the Copenhagen climate summit

LONDON: In three months world governments will reconvene in Durban, South Africa, in the hope of giving the failed Copenhagen climate negotiations a new sense of purpose and direction. Whether this happens or not, remains to be seen. Properly understanding why the climate-change process is so difficult is critical to any prospect of a political answer to a potential global catastrophe – a catastrophe not waiting for politicians to make up their minds.

In December 2009 political leaders from around the world traveled to the Danish capital, Copenhagen, for the Wold Climate Conference. Many expected them to agree on a new international treaty to combat global warming. Instead the meeting ended in acrimony. Since then, the topic of climate change seems to have dropped off the political agenda. Of the many reasons for the lack of advance probably the most fundamental is the deep lack of trust within the negotiating process. Fear and suspicion of being outmaneuvered have become so pervasive among members that almost any discussion, indeed even the formulation of an agenda for discussion, has become a long and torturous process. Here, it’s important to distinguish between agenda-related debates that deserve time, as opposed to those that should be short because the rules of the game are clear. Twice in the negotiations, government representatives have rightly taken considerable time to negotiate an agenda for negotiation.

The first time was before and during the first meeting of the Conference of Parties (CoP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, in 1995. This meeting produced the so-called “Berlin Mandate,” the framework which led to the successful negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The second time was in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007. Here governments negotiated the “Bali Roadmap,” the framework for negotiation which was supposed to lead to an agreed outcome two years later in Copenhagen.

In both cases it was time well spent in drafting an agenda for negotiation. In both cases ambiguities in the mandate led to seemingly endless processes of interpretation, renegotiation and frustration. This has degenerated to such an extent, that it is now not unusual for the formal opening of a negotiating session to be delayed for several days while, behind the scenes, government representatives frantically seek agreement on the agenda.

Unfounded paranoia is unfortunately not why disagreements like these happen. Many countries can point to moments in the process when what they thought had been clearly agreed is reopened for discussion. This is especially frustrating when what was agreed on a particular topic is in delicate balance with a concession made elsewhere in the negotiating process. At best, this leads to a lengthy, embittered debate on the issue in question. At worst, it can mean a collapse of the whole house of cards, since almost everything is related to everything else.

Lack of vision or obsession with insignificant detail are not root causes either. In some instances issues which relate to the absolute essence of what is under negotiation are reopened to endless debate. Most notably this goes to the question if the commitments of major developing countries should be on a par – at least in legal terms – with those of industrialized nations. Although the Climate Change Convention (1992) refers very clearly to the principle of “common responsibilities and respective capabilities” and although the Bali outcome distinguishes very clearly between the “commitments” to be made by rich and poor nations, it is the calling into question of this fundamental principle by industrialized countries that has probably caused the greatest degree of mistrust on the part of developing countries. Of course, rich countries will argue – and indeed do argue – that the Climate Convention was agreed upon almost two decades ago and that the distinction it makes is no longer relevant today. This is undeniably correct, but then those rich nations should perhaps not have accepted the terms for negotiation agreed in 2007. Accepting those terms only to question them at every twist and turn of the process can never be a basis for trust and transparency.

Unfortunately this is but one example. Other issues and seeming ambiguities have led to debates which greatly frustrate rich nations. There is. for example, the whole issue surrounding the monitoring, reporting and verification, or MRV, of developing country actions. Politically the concept of MRV is absolutely critical to developed countries in demonstrating that the emerging economies of the world – especially China – are pulling their weight and taking comparable action. Repeated debates on what seemed to have been agreed on the MRV concept have led to a cascade of complications on this and related topics. 

If only this issue were the source of distrust within the process, strong leadership and solid process management could perhaps put negotiations back on track. Unfortunately the trust issue is much broader. Perhaps especially in the eyes of developing nations, the long and bumpy road of climate negotiations is littered with broken promises. Poor countries feel cheated in terms of what’s been promised them on finance, technology and capacity building. The institutions responsible for delivering on these critical issues are perceived to be dominated by the interests of donor governments. Lack of clarity on what will or what will not be funded and endless bureaucratic procedures leave many feeling frustrated.

Although climate science has recently been called into question, lack of evidence is not what is holding negotiators back. Deep and justified mistrust aside, the main obstacle to progress lies in disbelief in a viable green growth model. When the debate should be about green growth and innovation as vehicles for competitive advantage, the discussion is instead about climate leadership leading to economic distorting and the displacement of economic activity.

Lack of trust and lack of faith in a collective way forward leave the climate negotiations in limbo, the private sector without a sense of policy direction and our planet heading for dangerous impacts of climate change, especially on those least able to cope. Prospects for the next round of negotiations are not encouraging. For this to change at least three steps are essential: First a process to restore discipline and trust to the multilateral negotiations. Second a real commitment to sustainable growth at the national level, but within an international framework to safeguard equity. And, thirdly, a real, measured, monitored and verified commitment on the part of rich nations to help their poorer brethren.

Despite distrust, what has kept the process alive is recognition on the part of nations around the world that they are in this together, that both the challenge and solution are global and that they can only be met together. Agreeing on the problem alone is however not enough. Nations and their people must also believe in the solution. Coming to grips with climate change requires a fundamental belief that we can give 9 billion people a decent lifestyle without running the planet into the ground. It requires a willingness to price greenhouse gas emissions according to the environmental damage they cause and give renewable energy a fair chance in global markets. It means that we must commit to sustainable economic growth and the often hard choices that go with this.


The author was executive secretary to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2006 to 2010. He is currently special global advisor on climate change and sustainability to KPMG and a professorial fellow at the International Centre for Integrated assessment and Sustainable development (ICIS) of the University of Maastricht.
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