Comment: Is it time to modernise UNFCCC?

By Heike Schroeder

Current UN structures are inequitable and obstruct progress towards international climate policy cooperation.

Another round of climate negotiations is starting next week. On the agenda are two main objectives: the implementation of a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol to start right away – on 1 January 2013 – and to make progress toward a new climate agreement to be finalised by 2015.

Issues to be discussed include, among others, adaptation finance, strengthening mitigation efforts by developed countries and reducing deforestation.

Whilst it’s good news that the Kyoto Protocol is moving into a new phase, only the EU countries, Australia and likely Norway and Switzerland will take part in this second commitment period, covering only some 10-12 percent of global emissions.

Many would rightly claim that Kyoto is not enough. This raises the age-old conundrum between focusing on a few willing countries to lead, even if their efforts are wiped out by massive emission rises elsewhere, and waiting until a critical mass of countries is ready to mitigate seriously.

The negotiations have made very little progress to date, even though thousands of delegates from around the world come together each year to discuss.

Perhaps climate change is a problem that national governments just cannot effectively address given current global and national governance structures?

In the age of the Anthropocene where humans are the biggest drivers of earth system change and where the negative externalities of our Western ways of life have come to haunt us, it is indeed difficult to solve problems with the same mind-set that created them, as Einstein already knew.

Perhaps we need much more participation and collaboration among those who have a vested interest in solving climate change.

Closed shop

Observer organisations can only get accreditation under the UNFCCC if they can prove that their mission is in accord with that of the UNFCCC (to avoid dangerous interference with the global climate). These same rules of course do not apply to national governments. Perhaps another problem is just that too many cooks can spoil the broth.

In a study published this week in Nature Climate Change, Max Boykoff (University of Colorado, Boulder), Laura Spiers (Pricewaterhouse Coopers) and I looked into this question of who attends climate negotiations.

Based on our results, we argue that it is high time to rethink UN rules and practices around state representation at UN climate conferences.

Current practice that give countries a free hand at sending as many delegates representing mainly vested national interests to the COPs results in serious differences in negotiating power between rich and poor countries.

Overall participation increased from 757 individuals representing 170 countries at the first Conference of the Parties (COP) in 1995 in Berlin to an all-time high of 10,591 individuals from 194 countries at COP-15 in 2009 in Copenhagen(a 14-fold increase).

Whilst Brazil sent almost 600 people, Somalia sent only 3. Because there are so many parallel negotiating tracks and so much technical detail, small delegations cannot participate in every session whilst larger delegations can.

We also find significant difference in terms of delegation composition across countries. Some countries include many different stakeholders on their delegation (Brazil businesses, Canada local government and Russia scientists), whilst others don’t.

This gives a reflection of the way countries frame climate change and/or what topics covered by the negotiations are of particular relevance to that country.

Moving forward we recommend that countries consider capping national delegations at a level that allows broad representation across government departments and sectors of society while maintaining a manageable overall size.

We also argue for a stronger role of constituencies in the UNFCCC (e.g. business, environmental non-governmental organizations, local government, indigenous peoples, youth and so on).

Finally, formal and informal arenas –  negotiations and side events on specific topics at COPs, for example adaptation finance or addressing drivers of deforestation – could be joined up in innovative ways to facilitate exchange of ideas and foster dialogue among various stakeholders.

Heike Schroeder is Senior Lecturer in Climate Change and International Development at the University of East Anglia

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