Policy Update #6

The Post-Copenhagen Voyage: Where Are We Heading?

An ocean of ink, mental sweat and more than a few tears have been shed on the Copenhagen Climate Conference recently. Since December, an army of experts have had something to say about what happened at COP 15 and what it means. Some see the post-Copenhagen cup as half-empty, others as half-full. Still more believe the cup is almost completely dry. Many have agonized over a “lost opportunity.” A few have even indulged in finger pointing and blaming the “culprits” they hold responsible for what happened—and did not happen—at COP 15.

While not every commentary has been constructive, the overall process of reflection since December has been useful. COP 15 ended after marathon sessions that left most participants exhausted. It also concluded with an outcome—the Copenhagen Accord—that did not fit the usual UN pattern, and was not universally endorsed. Further, the frenetic end to the meeting left many delegates unclear on exactly what had just occurred, and even less certain on what should happen next. Clearly, these topics required further thought and reflection in the calm light of day.

Almost four months later, what conclusions can we draw? Are we clearer now on where we should be heading than we were on COP 15's last day?

Charting a New Course

While the future remains opaque and we are without doubt in “uncharted waters,” we do now have some early signs of where we may be heading.

For a start, early post-Copenhagen reports of the UN's “demise” seem now to have been somewhat exaggerated. Indeed, it appears likely that the UN, and particularly the UNFCCC process, will play a central role, at least for the foreseeable future. For a start, the support by the Group of 77 and others for holding multiple negotiating sessions under the UNFCCC in 2010 shows an appetite for re-engaging and making progress in this setting. Also noteworthy is the launch in February by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of a High-Level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing . This panel is intended to build on pledges in the Copenhagen Accord for up to US$100 billion per year in financing for developing countries by 2020. While its impact remains to be seen, the panel has attracted some heavy hitters, including the Prime Ministers of the UK, Norway and Ethiopia, the President of Guyana, and other public figures such as George Soros. In addition, there has been considerable interest in the recently-announced vacancy for Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, since incumbent Yvo de Boer will be leaving the post at the end of June (for more on this, see the final section of this article).

These early indications do not mean the diplomatic journey will be easy. Recent announcements by senior EU and US officials suggest that the G20 may emerge as another critical process, perhaps at the expense of the UNFCCC. Even some fans of the UNFCCC appear to feel that a smaller group of key countries may find it easier to strike a future deal if they take the talks outside of the broader UN framework—which faces the challenge of reaching consensus among more than 190 governments.

An early test for parties to the UNFCCC will be how it accommodates the Copenhagen Accord. At COP 15, parties “took note” of the Accord without formally adopting it. This created an unusual legal conundrum, since it was not immediately clear what the status of the deal was within the UNFCCC. More vexing still was the Accord's language noting that it was “operational immediately.” This raised the question: if not all parties had endorsed it, how should it apply? And who, exactly, should operationalize it?

In response to these questions, the UNFCCC Secretariat quickly requested an indication from parties whether they would be willing to “associate” themselves with the Accord and be listed in its opening paragraph. To date, 116 countries representing over 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions have associated themselves with and/or agreed to be listed in the introduction to the Accord. Of these, more than 70 have submitted targets or actions. While a handful of countries have indicated that they do not support the Accord, the agreement does appear to have widespread acceptance. Furthermore, countries such as Brazil and South Africa, which were among the key architects of the Accord, are understood to favor discussing it under the UNFCCC.

While none of this gives the Accord any formal legal standing under the UNFCCC, there is clearly a view among many parties that it represents a political agreement that should somehow become a part of the UNFCCC discussions. Some now feel that the Accord can give some guidance to efforts over the next two years to finalize a more complete deal that could be adopted by the COP (even if it remains unclear how such a deal will be achieved).

The first major opportunity for the UNFCCC process to demonstrate its relevance in 2010 will take place from 9-11 April, when the Ad Hoc Working Groups gather for their first session of 2010 in Bonn. Many insiders have billed this as a “procedural” meeting that can help chart the course for the year and establish a clear understanding of what happens next, including the organization of work.

While this sounds like a technical exercise, parties will also need to address the major political question of how the Accord is accommodated in their work. Discussions under the AWG-LCA in particular are worth watching to see how this evolves.

Can We Trust Our Data?

Another newsworthy shift in recent months has been the resurfacing of the debate on climate science. Because of its potential impact on public opinion, the headline-grabbing return of climate skepticism has serious implications for international policy making. The current string of scandals broke out last November over inflammatory emails stolen from East Anglia University's Climate Research Unit. It soon reached a crescendo in late January over errors found in the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report. These events have provided fuel for climate skeptics, whose reactions are likely to confuse the public and present a challenge for mainstream scientists and policy makers.

While such stories make titillating headlines, the events they describe do not affect the accuracy of the message. Even if some of the mistakes are quite serious, a handful of errors in a text as long as the Fourth Assessment Report do not make the entire report invalid.  The community of mainstream climate scientists may have been embarrassed, but their research results have not been disproven.  What this means is that policy makers can trust the data and research of the mainstream climate community. If anything, the IPCC and other credible groups have erred on the side of caution, not alarmism.

Who Will Captain the Ship?

The impact of individuals in negotiations is often underrated, and yet it is proven time and again to be important (consider, for instance, the role of Raúl Estrada-Oyuela at the negotiations in Kyoto in 1997). In this context, one noteworthy event since Copenhagen has been the resignation of UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer. Many in the process have expressed regret, suggesting that the UNFCCC is losing an energetic figure and a forthright voice for progress.

With Yvo de Boer set to leave the post on 1 July, the race is now on to replace him. The candidates are all well known in the UNFCCC, and include a couple of current UN officials. The list (in alphabetical order) includes Tariq Banuri (Pakistan), Christiana Figueres (Costa Rica), Janos Pasztor (Hungary), Marthinus vanSchalkwyk(South Africa) and Vijai Sharma (India). With such candidates, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has a difficult decision ahead.

A cynic might compare competition for this role to fighting about who should captain the Titanic as she sails towards inevitable destruction. Yet this is surely unfair. Yes, the UN process has been shaken, and science suggests that we are heading towards disaster if we do not divert dramatically from our business-as-usual course.  But unlike the Titanic, the UNFCCC is still afloat, and science suggests we have not struck the iceberg yet. The new “captain” of the climate negotiations, whoever she or he may be, still has the chance to make a difference and help humanity chart a safer course.