Is Success Possible for International Climate Negotiations?
A climate scientist once suggested there isn’t anything complicated about the technical solutions to the climate crisis. As far as he was concerned, this emerging crisis could have been averted simply by reducing climate changing-gas emissions below certain levels. Sounds easy-peasy, right? Then why has the international community spent the last 18 years trying to figure out how do so?
Possibly because any sort of response to the climate crisis requires more than a technical fix. It requires political will—and if the United Nations is the forum wherein an international response will be agreed upon, it requires both a political agreement for action and a consensus as to how the nations of the world will take action. When the world’s nations sit down to discuss climate change they take into account many more issues than just the technical aspects.
There are socio-political-economic considerations and also even issues of basic fairness and social justice. Countries like Brazil, India and China bring to the table their concerns for continued development and sometimes argue that their own efforts to pull their citizenry out of poverty shouldn’t become stymied by commitments to solve a problem they argue they’ve had a minimal role in creating. Still others, such as the U.S., sometimes argue that any commitment to reduce emissions that ignores emissions made by emerging economies will fail to actually do much to slow the problems anticipated with climate change.
Over the last 18 years the international community has come a long way in agreeing that climate change is actually a problem that ought to be addressed–a problem worthy of negotiation and consideration. However, there remains much less agreement over how exactly to address it. During the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen, many people were excited that the international community was close to such an agreement and then were disappointed when the whole process appeared to fall apart. Many felt completely disillusioned by the entire UN process and the international community’s ability to come together and work toward any sort of constructive response. It was a sad time for many who had worked so hard and who came so close to an agreement, only to see the whole thing disintegrate before their very eyes. Many people, including several Loyola students in attendence there, simply gave up on the UN process and its possibility of resulting in success after COP15.
Still, others did not give up hope that the international community could reach agreement of some sort. COP16 in Cancun, Mexico was my first COP and I was able to witness both the despairing results of COP15 on the part of COP16’s attendees and the reemergence of optimism once it began to look like the international community could still come together and at least talk and agree on a few things—even if it wasn’t a comprehensive agreement that might directly address the growing challenges ahead. COP16 offered some Parties and delegates a renewed sense that the UNFCCC process could still lead to something substantial even if it is down the road.
So when COP17 in Durban, South Africa came around, many of us in environmental non-governmental delegations where hoping to see some sort of concrete evidence come out of COP17 that this UN process was indeed still viable. Whether or not the public has received that evidence is still being debated as one is likely to find as many reporters hailing the success of Durban as those denouncing it as a failure.
My own interpretation is one rooted in hopefulness. In utter frustration, one of the 18-year old college students in the Sierra Club’s delegation asked a high ranking U.S. official to explain why she should remain hopeful that the international community could come to any sort of constructive agreement when we’ve been negotiating her entire life. His personal response, while somewhat cliché, nonetheless speaks to the enduring power of hopefulness in motivating people to continue working toward positive change, even when the odds of success appear impossible: because we believe it is possible.
While the UNFCCC process has yet to result in any sort of legally binding commitment on the behalf of Parties to reduce global climate change-gas emissions, it has resulted in an agreement to at least begin negotiating a binding agreement (though not necessarily legally binding—several countries remain opposed that). Furthermore, those Party to the Kyoto Protocol have agreed to a second commitment period that may carry the majority of the 190 nations through to a transition into a new agreement that would hopefully see global emissions peak before 2020 (the KP is the closest thing to any sort of a binding agreement among the international community to reduce emissions over time, even if the U.S. isn’t Party). And also worth noting, there was agreement on the need to set up a Green Climate Fund that could provide financing for mitigation and adaptation projects around the world.
Will the international community really carry out these promises in future COPs? Is it possible that the world’s nations can come to a concrete consensus in response to climate change? Will any of this prove an adequate enough response to some of the emerging challenges member nations are already seeing and expect to see as a result of climate change? Only time will tell but for now at least we have a process and a forum in which the international community continues to negotiate and work toward building consensus around a way forward.
Regarding the impossible projects, the inspiring South African, Nelson Mandela, is known to have said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Is consensus possible? I hope it’s possible and I believe it’s possible–and until a more promising vehicle for change and international collaboration emerges, I’m going to keep hoping, keep believing, and keep working.