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Keep the COPs: Fix, don’t scrap, the UN process

07 December 2010
Keep the COPs: Fix, don’t scrap, the UN process

By Evan Juska
Senior Policy Manager at The Climate Group in North America
Op-ed, Carbon Market North America (Point Carbon)

The goal of COP16 in Cancun is to achieve a “balanced package of decisions” – in other words, to make incremental but meaningful progress on each of the key issues (mitigation, financing, verification, technology, adaptation and forests). This is possible, and if achieved, should help restore confidence in the UNFCCC process. But given that the negotiations were supposed to have concluded with a comprehensive new treaty 12 months ago in Copenhagen, it will be hard for many observers to view even fairly major advances in Cancun as significant.

As a result, reports coming out of Cancun are likely to focus less on what the meeting has accomplished, and more on the future viability of the UNFCCC itself. But while it’s important to take a sober look at what the UN process has achieved to date, it’s more important that we draw the right conclusions about what has and has not worked, so that we are able to chart a credible path forward.

With this goal in mind, there are a few things worth considering when assessing progress in Cancun and beyond.

First, it is a specific approach to international cooperation on climate change that has stalled, not international cooperation on climate change generally. To date, the UNFCCC has pursued internationally-agreed “targets and timetables” as the main approach to cooperation. It’s this approach that has so far been unable to get both major developed and developing countries to participate. And it’s this approach that remains a key stumbling block in today’s negotiations – with many developing countries pushing to keep the top-down “targets and timetables” embodied in the Kyoto protocol, and many developed countries pushing for the bottom-up “pledge and review” approach inherent in the Copenhagen accord. It’s important to recognize this distinction so that we don’t let the difficulties associated with the current process discourage other efforts at international climate cooperation, which face their own significant, but different, set of challenges.

Second, despite the lack of progress to date, we still need international cooperation on climate change. There was a good reason that the UNFCCC was formed in 1994 and was successful in attracting broad participation. The global nature of climate change requires a global solution, and international cooperation will be necessary to achieve it. This is as true today as it was then, which means that countries will have to continue to work together to solve this problem. The good news is that there are a number of more targeted approaches to international cooperation – like technology standards, coordinated R&D, and sectoral agreements – that could succeed, while the political and economic groundwork is laid for a more comprehensive deal. And many countries are beginning to pursue these approaches through multilateral and bilateral partnerships, like the recently launched US-China Clean Energy Research Center.

Third, because we need international cooperation on climate change, we also need the UNFCCC. Different approaches may be pursued in different venues - like the Major Economies Forum (MEF) or regional groupings like the G20 – but there will still be a need to coordinate and implement many of these efforts within a global body. There will also be a need for a forum where all countries have a voice, as the decisions (or lack thereof) made by major emitting countries, often affect small developing countries the most. So whether it’s “targets and timetables” or other approaches, the UNFCCC will have an important role to play.

So while COP16 won’t deliver a comprehensive global deal, it doesn’t mean that international cooperation on climate change is hopeless. Instead of questioning the overall international effort, we should focus on fixing the current approach and exploring other complementary approaches to cooperation. It may be challenging, but it’s still our best hope for solving the climate problem.

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