03 December 2011

The Durban UNFCCC international climate negotiations

In which I discuss the Durban UNFCCC international climate negotiations through a historic lense of the Second World War and the Rio 1992 Earth Summit.

In a very considered comment on the Hot Topic blog , David Lewis questions whether the Durban UNFCCC international climate negotiations can come up with a binding treaty that effectively reduces GHG concentrations, given the existing public will.

"I don’t see how negotiations on an international climate treaty can proceed to an agreement that would actually stabilize the composition of the atmosphere at a level that would not cause [dangerous anthropogenic interference] without more demand for such an agreement coming from the global population"

David Lewis compares the global demand for action in the international climate change negotiations with the changing British attitudes to 'Total War' with Hitler's Germany in 1940. Lewis implies that in the climate change negotiations, each government is "trapped in a circumstance where it can’t generate the national will that’s necessary".

In terms of the purposes served by international climate change negotiations, I would go a step further than that thoughtful comment from David Lewis. I say that the negotiations have never had the goal of producing a binding treaty to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations. Governments instead use the negotiations as one of their reasons for not reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and for continuing with 'business-as-usual'.

Let me summarise my contention using another reference to the Second World War.

Q. Whats the difference between Neville Chamberlain's negotiations in 1938 with Hitler in Munich that lead to the annexation of Czechoslovakia and the UNFCCC international climate change negotiations?
A. Neville Chamberlain only went once to Munich.

In making my argument I am influenced by a paper my late father Robin Johnson wrote in 1992 about the political-economy of the Rio Earth Summit. Robin uses the term "political-economy" to indicate he is considering the various groups with interests in the Earth Summit and asking what interests were served by the outcomes.

Robin noted that the expected outcomes of the Rio Earth Summit were binding signed international conventions on climate change and biological diversity. However, the actual outcome was a "framework convention...full of resounding phraseology and generalities".

Robin says the reason for this outcome was the fundamental split between the 'North' (developed countries) and South (developing country) blocs. Neither bloc was was willing to put global interest ahead of national interests. Instead, the outcome of the Earth Summit consisted of "non-binding language ... adopted to get all major nations to sign".

No agreement except on non-binding rhetorical statements! Sound familiar, doesn't it? Isn't that whats happened with all the subsequent climate change talks?

Robin's paper uncannily predicts much of the next 19 years of inconclusive negotiations. He wrote "Prior to meeting in Rio, some governments expressed concern that the Earth Summit would become a "pledging conference" where world leaders would be expected to step to the podium and announce their country's contribution." Copenhagen 2009, anyone?

Robin concluded "The challenge for those seeking action will be to channel the outcomes of Rio into concrete action by member states". Substitute "Bali 2007" or "Copenhagen 2009" or "Cancun 2010" for "Rio", and we can re-use that conclusion for all subsequent international climate change negotiations.

So, from a political economy point of view, the climate change negotiations have had the effect of ensuring that international opinion stays "behind the demand curve” for decisive action. After all, that is the function they have served in the 19 years since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

So I think we need to let go of the idea that the negotiations as they are currently constituted and conducted will make any useful contribution to the kind of decisive international action that is required. We need to accept that the negotiations are just another forum for business and politics as usual.

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