Should we give up on the UN Climate Talks? Absolutely not.
However, with the talks entering their 20th year amid continued disagreement over which countries should cut their emissions first, and by how much, some commentators are suggesting that an alternative approach is needed if we want to make any real progress: perhaps we should "drop idealistic hopes of an all-encompassing and workable global deal". Professor David Victor explains:
"So far [we] have favoured speedy negotiations, high-profile summits, and a focus on simplistic emission targets. The result has been the illusion of action but not much impact on the underlying problem... If we keep the UN negotiations as they are organised right now, we’ll see 5 degrees C of warming. Bold goals may make us feel good but environmentalists must start engaging with the political reality."
According to this thinking, rather than a top-down global goal to limit warming to 2 degrees C (seen as unrealistic because, in practice, rich countries are unwilling to reduce their emissions in line with the target), negotiations would start from what each individual country is able or willing to offer. Deals could then be agreed between major polluters outside of the UN Process, avoiding the need to achieve consensus between all 194 countries who attend the talks. The hope is that it would mean tangible actions could be agreed and implemented more quickly between major polluters.
So why are so many campaigners and scientists worried by the proposition? Quite simply because it is unlikely to result in emissions cuts that would be either fair to poor countries or adequate to avoid disaster. Without an agreed global target, there will be no recourse for the world's most vulnerable populations if highly-polluting countries fail to significantly reduce their emissions, leaving billions of people to suffer as our planet heats up. What's more, the recent history of the negotiations suggests that this is exactly what would happen.
In 2009, when the UN Climate Talks ground to a halt, a deal known as the 'Copenhagen Accord' was pushed through by the USA - it used a similar 'add up the pledged emissions cuts and see' approach. The terrifying result was a projected 4 degrees C of warming.
So is there a middle ground - one that enables immediate action while holding highly polluting countries to account? Chris Spence, a veteran watcher of the UN Talks, points out that although progress in the negotiations themselves has been modest and incremental - often "disappointing, frustrating, repetitive and sometimes even maddening" - people around the world are getting to work and tackling climate change:
"Those on the periphery of the process (business, local, national and regional entities, civil society) are pursuing their own course of action. Whether it is Australia, China or California introducing carbon markets or cap-and-trade systems, or local communities and business leaders implementing new sustainability strategies, action is happening at many levels. These groups are hoping the global process will catch up with them eventually. But they are not waiting for this to happen before taking action themselves."
And meanwhile, the UN Talks are "the most logical, practical multilateral venue for addressing what is, after all, a global problem". Understood in these terms, the latest round of negotiations taking place in Durban this month, represent another step on the slow but steady path towards a longer-term goal: a truly global deal that should be fair, ambitious and legally binding. Elsewhere, as the talks slowly progress, inspiring and positive solutions are already being implemented around the world - often at impressive speed.
The challenge for campaigners then, is to raise the levels of ambition among highly polluting countries, so that a global plan to limit warming to 2 degree C becomes reality.blog comments powered by Disqus