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Making a difference: the importance of engagement in UN climate talks

04 June 2010
Making a difference: the importance of engagement in UN climate talks

Damian Ryan, Senior Analyst at The Climate Group, discusses why engagement in the international UN climate talks should be on the agendas of businesses and sub-national governments.

Have you booked that flight to Cancun in Mexico and COP16 yet? If you were one of the 45,000 delegates who attended (or attempted to attend) the Copenhagen Climate Conference in Denmark last year, you might be having second thoughts. Long queues, incomprehensible language and arcane jargon used by the negotiators will have confirmed for many that the UN climate negotiations is a process best avoided. While such a conclusion is perhaps understandable, it is also a mistake.

As negotiations once again gather pace in the lead up to Cancun, it is worth reminding ourselves why this process, and engagement in it, matters.

Global problems demand global solutions

At the most basic level, the world needs a global negotiation because climate change is a global problem. Since no single country’s action can have a meaningful impact on stopping climate change, cooperation is essential. While much can and will be done through regional-focused approaches, only a global deal is likely to provide the scale and speed of action necessary to avoid the worst climate impacts.

Unconvinced about the benefits of global cooperation? Then just consider the massive economic benefits provided by 60 years of international trade liberalization, or the collaboration that has reduced the problem of the ozone hole and eradicated smallpox.  A new global climate deal could be similarly as transformative.

International agreements are also important because they provide the glue that makes domestic action stick. Criticism has often been leveled at the Kyoto Protocol because of its perceived failure to reduce emissions. In reality, the Protocol has been instrumental in the establishment of many of the national climate policies and practices that will underpin climate action over the coming decades. For certain, there is much to improve on, but without the first steps created under Kyoto, many countries would have taken far less action than they have.

Need to be in, to win

Global deals of course don’t happen by themselves. They are the products of often long, complex, technical and political discussions. The UN climate talks, because they cut across issues such as economic development, intellectual property, energy security and indigenous rights, are arguably the most complex set of negotiations ever held. It is perhaps little wonder then that over 1200 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), representing a huge diversity of interests, are registered as official observers under the UN Climate Change Convention.

Although the negotiations themselves remain a strictly intergovernmental process, the participation of these NGOs has helped create a far more dynamic atmosphere than would otherwise be the case. Observers are often the source of many of the progressive ideas that ultimately make their way into the actual negotiations. They also play a role in keeping negotiations honest and open.

But such influence doesn’t happen overnight. Having an impact requires a long-term strategy. As with so many political processes, personalities and relationships matter a great deal. Showing up once a year at the COP has little impact unless a sound foundation for engagement has already been laid. Busy negotiators and ministers have little time, and understandably devote it to those initiatives, organizations and individuals they know and trust. Just like winning the lottery, you need to be in to win.

The importance of business and sub-national government engagement

Given all this, it is unsurprising that both business and sub-national governments have a huge role to play in shaping the negotiations. There is much to do. Climate talks continue to focus more on ‘costs endured’ rather than ‘opportunities seized’. Much of the media has also been captive to either an alarmist environmental perspective or a climate skeptic one. None of this is conducive to creating the necessary international framework for driving the world’s clean revolution. The pragmatic, optimistic and entrepreneurial voice of progressive businesses and sub-national governments is needed now more than ever.

So what to do? As with so many things, action starts at home. This means influencing national negotiating positions by showcasing the benefits of positive climate action. For example, showing clearly the synergies between policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and those to promote growth, increase access to secure energy supplies, reduce pollution and address poverty.

It also means responding with pragmatic, real solutions to vested interests and those legitimately affected by the shift to a low-carbon economy. States and regions are the perfect laboratories for making all this happen.

Internationally, it means forming progressive ‘coalitions of the willing’ to re-frame the current negotiating narrative. The Climate Group’s ‘Climate Leaders’ Summit’, held at every COP since 2005 is a case in point. Bringing together leaders from both business and politics, the summits have demonstrated how sub-national governments can lead the way in creating the economic environments in which progressive low-carbon business can thrive. Other business initiatives such as the Aviation Global Deal Group, the International Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC) or The Climate Principles for banks also play a critical role in shifting political opinion.

So start practising that Spanish

In short, engagement matters. While no-one wishes to see a repeat performance of Copenhagen, the fact is that more, not less engagement by business and sub-national governments is now necessary.

The challenge is to make it smarter. So it’s time to start checking those flight details.

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