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Environmental & Energy Insights

The key development of week 2 at the COP – no more BAU at the UNFCCC

It seems that the UN is waking up to the fact that at least for the UNFCCC, if not for global emissions of GHGs, BAU is no longer an acceptable option.

Many have focussed on the pros and cons of the Copenhagen Accord in evaluating whether the recently concluded COP was a success (or not).  My view is that the more important contribution of week two of COP 15 may turn out to be a major revision of the UNFCCC negotiation process.  Because rules of procedure have never been adopted by the UNFCCC, all decisions must be made by consensus.

That lack of procedure led, at the most recent COP, to the ability of a small group of nations to block adoption of the Copenhagen Accord, much to the chagrin of the major emitters who negotiated the agreement. The problems with getting 192 nations to agree to anything substantial are legion, especially when only a small number of countries must bear the vast majority of the up-front costs of implementing decisions made by all 192 (for more on this, see writing by Dan Bodansky on represntation without taxation at the UNFCCC in his article Bonn Voyage: Kyoto’s Uncertain Revival).  This has led to recent moves on the part of the United States via the Major Economies Forum (MEF) to create alternative venues for moving forward on climate and energy issues. The MEF is perhaps the one area of the climate change debate where the previous administration and the current one agree on how to proceed.

Now, even Ban Ki-moon has acknowledged that the UNFCCC process needs reform. Without reform, the UN process seems more and more likely to be dethroned as the locus of international diplomacy on climate change. There are good reasons to stay within the UNFCCC process, if decisionmaking can be reformed to be both streamlined and to better reflect the interests of those who must do something if dangerous climate change is to be averted.

Most of the nations, including the US, that have been pushing alternative fora for discusison of climate change would likely be happier within a UN process, if it were both workable and perceived as fair. Inducing these countries to stick with the UNFCCC as they move forward with international commitments on climate change also has the tremendous benefit of giving those countries that will bear the long-term costs of climate change a say, albeit a smaller one than in past, in the outcome. The biggest problem with the MEF approach is that it fundamentally disenfranchises those with the most to lose from climate change in the decisions about how much effort to expend on avoiding it.

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