Political pragmatism could stifle ambition of 2015 UN climate deal

Focus on legal nature of global warming treaty replaced by need to ensure any agreement is ‘meaningful’



By Ed King

Choosing words and phrases that mean everything and nothing is a favoured pastime of politicians. ‘Big society’, ‘Change we can believe in’, ‘Yes we can’, ‘Yes America can’, ‘Don’t Stop, Keep Going On’ – I’ll stop now.

But words are important, and in the context of international treaties where arguments can rage over where to place a comma, they take an added significance.

And it has struck me as increasingly odd in the past few months how a growing cohort of diplomats, politicians and business leaders talk of a ‘meaningful’ global climate change deal in 2015.

Not a legally binding, global warming busting, industry transforming epic of a treaty. But a ‘meaningful outcome’ that can help satisfy some of those criteria just mentioned.

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, who it’s worth stressing is still pitching for a legal treaty, told RTCC recently: “we don’t have an option of not coming to an agreement that is meaningful.”

So what’s the story? Is there a story?

Well, it does appear that, as politicians become re-engaged with this issue, the smell of pragmatism and a desire not to face another UN summit car-crash  like Copenhagen in 2009 is defining the negotiations.

The push for a universal as opposed to a radically ambitious agreement is a line of argument US lead negotiator Todd Stern – the wiliest of climate foxes – has made for the past two years. It’s likely to intensify in the build-up to Ban Ki-moon’s climate leaders’ summit this September.

And pertinently, it’s one Pascal Canfin, the French Minister running preparations for Paris in 2015, has started to stress: “For a number of countries, including the US, a legal agreement on binding targets will be very difficult for political reasons. On the other hand, if there is only a bottom-up approach…it will be very difficult for public opinion,” he said last October.

Legal wrangles

There’s always a danger of reading too much into speeches and comments.

But observers and analysts RTCC has spoken to say there’s something more significant going on. One business leader told us today the “political reality was starting to bite”. Specifically, there seems to be a growing feeling among a wide variety of countries that the legally binding nature of any deal will not be in the form of a treaty, or any overarching agreement under the United Nations.

This is relevant because in 2011 countries agreed to work towards a “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” to be signed in 2015 and come into force by 2020. Since then politicians, journalists and UN officials have all talked about a ‘global legally binding emissions treaty’, without really pausing to think how this could work.

With time running out, and the latest international summit ending without any firm basis to move forward, a forthcoming UN gathering in March in Bonn has now assumed huge importance. This is where the tough talks will start.

Alternative view

No-one is willing to place their cards on the table, but observers and negotiators RTCC has spoken to since the last round of UN talks in Warsaw suggest that instead of a ‘treaty’ in 2015 we’re likely to see agreement over a framework of how ambitious pledges can be delivered, together with a more transparent and efficient process for countries to measure, report and verify their greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s a concept that enrages some developing nation blocs, who see it as a way of richer nations avoiding their responsibilities. But they may have no choice but to accept it. Why? Because there are only three blocks that really matter as far as 2015 is concerned: the EU, USA and China.

Between them they account for about 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Russia and India are next in line, responsible for 6% each.

The BRICs, MINTs, BASIC, G77 and LDCs are all important – but the reality is that a relatively small number of countries have it in their power to make this work. As it stands, the USA and China are currently unlikely to accept legally binding emission caps, although it is possible their current climate dialogue could change that.

The EU wants a legal treaty, but its influence is waning, and internal battles over fracking, its renewables target and whether it should adopt a 35 or 45% emissions reduction target for 2030 hardly inspire confidence.

France obviously wants an agreement at any cost in Paris, having seen the fallout from Copenhagen in 2009. Francois Hollande has enough domestic issues, and appears to have instructed his team to focus on the universality of the agreement rather than forcing the USA into a corner.

Key players

It’s worth recalling what former UNFCCC Executive Secretary Michael Zammit Cutajar, perhaps the world’s most experienced climate diplomat, told RTCC in 2012.

“Given the preferences of US and China, I do not expect that the 2015 deal envisaged in the Durban Platform (effective 2020) will come to an elegant, logical resolution,” he said. “I expect the 2015 outcome to be an aggregation of pledges or commitments, in which motivated countries (islands, LDCs, EU etc) will push for highest level of ambition.”

Clearly it’s early days. The next 12 months are likely to be an intense year for climate diplomacy. The level of political will change depending on the growth of the low carbon sector, the state of the global economy and – depressingly – what the weather is like.

The UN’s IPCC climate science process delivers two reports this year on adaptation and green technology, while an updated version of the Stern report on the economics of climate change will emerge in the summer ahead of the Ban summit.

But for those who find the idea that a legally binding treaty will not be signed depressing, Zammit Cutajar stressed that this in itself is not an endgame.

“I would argue that the legal form of the 2015 outcome is not as important as its ambition and the means for verifying delivery of actions and outcomes pledged,” he said. “The winning formula may be ambition plus predictability plus accountability.”

Read more on: Climate politics | Comment | UN climate talks |