Cock-up or Cop-out?

I thought about calling this article “The Road to Nowhere”, until I realised how inappropriate that would be for a process that really got going with COP3 in 1997 in Kyoto, and which has since seen the whole jamboree travel to such exotic holiday destinations as Buenos Aires (twice), Marrakech (twice), New Delhi, Milan, Montreal, Nairobi, Bali, Copenhagen, Cancun, Durban, Doha, Lima, Paris and Madrid (which stepped in at the last moment to replace Santiago when, with delicious irony, it was deemed unsafe due to riots against rising transport fares due in large part to rising fuel prices).  It’s not a road to nowhere, but a long road to many holiday destinations (and a few others), with no end in sight.

With COP 26 in Glasgow on the horizon (and no doubt increasing media stories ramping up the hype until it’s all over) I thought it might be useful to consider how we arrived at the failure that the Paris Agreement represents, after such a long and expensive (and greenhouse gas-fuelled) road.1

Stockholm

The first time the United Nations looked seriously into environmental issues was at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (also known as the Stockholm Conference), held in June 1972. As the UN’s website says, this “marked a turning point in the development of international environmental politics.” The Conference produced an 81 page report, and a long list of recommendations. In those days, of course, climate change wasn’t considered to be a problem – if anything, cooling was the issue, with temperatures dropping marginally between approximately 1940 and 1975. So, no mention of global warming, climate change and certainly not of climate crisis or “climate weirding” or anything of that ilk.  

Instead, there was real concern about what damage was being caused to the environment by humankind, and how an international approach was required to resolve the problems we humans were causing. Some of the later developments can, nevertheless, be identified in the recommendations that came out of the Stockholm Conference. It suggested that a Governing Council for Environmental Programmes should be set up within the UN; ongoing review by it of the world environmental situation and of national and international environmental policies; the creation of a voluntary Environment Fund to pay for new environmental initiatives within the UN system; the creation of an Environment Secretariat; the creation of an Environment Co-ordinating Board; the designation of 5th June as World Environment Day; and that a second, follow-up conference should be convened.

Robin Guenier1 has identified what he calls the Stockholm Dilemma. Basically, environmental issues were largely a western preoccupation, and it was necessary to involve poorer countries if the problems identified by the Conference were to be resolved. Yet the rest of the world was anxious to emulate the West’s success and alleviate the plight of its poor teeming millions.

The Conference broadly solved the dilemma by stating (I paraphrase) that environmental degradation has largely been caused by the development of the western world, but that in developing countries, most environmental problems are caused by under-development. Population growth was identified as a problem, but one that could be solved by the adoption of “appropriate policies and measures”. Thus, encouraging the developing world to develop was clearly the way to get the developing world on board with the process. Sounds familiar?

The timing wasn’t great, though. The oil price shock followed soon afterwards, so not a lot more happened for quite a while.

Rio

As the UN’s website tells us, The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the ‘Earth Summit’, was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992, on the 20th anniversary of the first Human Environment Conference in Stockholm. It brought together political leaders, diplomats, scientists, representatives of the media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from 179 countries for a massive effort to focus on the impact of human socio-economic activities on the environment.

At this stage, environmental issues, as we traditionally understand them, had still not been entirely swamped by an obsession with greenhouse gases and climate change. The Rio Conference produced the Convention on Biological Diversity (which, interestingly, provided for a dispute resolution procedure, unlike the Paris Climate Agreement); a Declaration on Principles of Forest Management (which, interestingly, provided for establishing systems for integrated environmental and economic accounting, and established an assessment process unlike the Paris Climate Agreement); the Commission on Sustainable Development; and some negotiations for the establishment of an agreement on straddling stocks and highly migratory fish stocks (though this doesn’t seem to have got very far).  

But Rio did more. Climate change was now on the agenda. And so the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was born. It came into effect in 1994, and it built on the divide between the developed and developing world that we saw at Stockholm back in 1972. It authorised developing countries to prioritise development over emissions reductions, and so the seeds that were sowed in 1972 in Stockholm blossomed into a divide that has bedevilled all attempts ever since to produce an international system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the whole process was doomed from this point on. China quickly seized on the distinction, ensured that it was categorised as a developing country, and effectively demanded that it would continue to retain that status. It should rapidly have dawned on the developed world at the first two COPs held at Berlin and Geneva that China was going to prioritise what it sees as its interests, and that it wasn’t interested in emissions reductions.

Kyoto

The third COP took place in Kyoto in 1997, but the Kyoto Protocol entered into force only on 16th February 2005 (for all the good it did). At this point, it’s worth quoting from the UN website:

In short, the Kyoto Protocol operationalizes the UNFCCC by committing industrialized countries and economies in transition to limit and reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions in accordance with agreed individual targets. The Convention itself only asks those countries to adopt policies and measures on mitigation and to report periodically. The Kyoto Protocol is based on the principles and provisions of the Convention and follows its annex-based structure.

It only binds developed countries, and places a heavier burden on them under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities”, because it recognizes that they are largely responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere.

In its Annex B, the Kyoto Protocol sets binding emission reduction targets for 37 industrialized countries and economies in transition and the European Union. Overall these targets add up to an average 5 per cent emission reduction compared to 1990 levels over the five year period 2008–2012 (the first commitment period).

And so the division (between developed and developing countries) first contemplated at Stockholm, confirmed at Rio, built on at Berlin and Geneva, became entrenched. The failures now start to come fix and fast. At Doha in Qatar in December 2012, an amendment to the Kyoto Protocol was agreed, for a second commitment period from 2013 until 2020. However, as it requires (but has not yet achieved) 144 instruments of acceptance, the Doha Amendment has not yet entered into force.

Kyoto also established the “Kyoto mechanisms,” which include the trading of emissions permits. The UN website claims that Kyoto “established a rigorous monitoring, review and verification system, as well as a compliance system to ensure transparency and hold Parties to account”. However, as we saw in How Do You Measure Hot Air? that isn’t exactly going well, and only an optimist would describe it as rigorous and transparent and believe that any country is being held to account.

Copenhagen

I remember the Copenhagen Conference in 2009 (COP 15) vividly. Gordon Brown was there and making a lot of noise.  If you believe the UN website, it was a marvellous success. Apparently it raised climate change policy to the highest political level. It was one of the largest gatherings of world leaders ever outside UN HQ in New York. More than 40,000 people applied for accreditation.  

And yet…my memory has been jogged by an article published on the BBC website on 22nd December 2009. It contains some memorable quotes:

Gordon Brown said that the talks were “at best flawed and at worst chaotic” and he called for a reformed UN process.

Gordon Brown (again) proclaimed that a global deal should not be “held to ransom by a handful of countries”.

Ed Miliband singled out China for vetoing an agreement on emissions, but in an article in the Guardian both he and Gordon Brown said a diluted deal was better than nothing at all.

China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, praised the summit in a statement, saying “Developing and developed countries are very different in their historical emissions responsibilities and current emissions levels, and in their basic national characteristics and development stages. Therefore, they should shoulder different responsibilities and obligations in fighting climate change.

Ban Ki-moon said the agreement must be made legally binding next year…

…We’re still waiting.

Paris never stood a chance.

Notes:

[1] In this article I have leaned heavily on an essay published on 29th June 2020 by Robin Guenier, who knows far more about this topic than I do. For those who wish to educate themselves on the subject, Robin’s essay can be found here:

https://notalotofpeopleknowthat.wordpress.com/2020/07/07/the-west-v-the-rest-reposted/

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April 20, 2021 at 09:17AM

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