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Climate Change:

What's More Important Than Our Planet?

By Margreet Wewerinke and Curtis F J Doebbler

 Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, February 21, 2011

Recently, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon announced that the UN would henceforth cease its direct involvement in climate change talks. This announcement may not surprise those familiar with the Secretary-General’s consistently ‘hand-off’ approach to any issue that might cause concern for the governments whose support he believes he needs for re-election later this year.
A more important question, however, is does the disinterest of the second-most-senior-UN-official, after the President of the General Assembly, in the process of negotiating international action to protect the planet’s climate, really make any sense?
Puzzled observers are asking themselves: Does the UN Secretary-General think the planet’s future is no longer worth his time? What could be more important? How can the UN disengage from a process that was created by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a treaty adopted under UN auspices and headed by a UN Under-Secretary-General?
Ban Ki Moon has not denied that climate change is a global problem. Indeed, at the recent World Social Forum in Davos he declared our current global economic model an environmental “global suicide pact” leading us to disaster.
His presence in Davos, a summit for the world’s richest people who run the “global suicide pact” economy, also provides some insight into why and how he thinks the UN should distance itself from climate change negotiations. 
He presence at this party to celebrate capitalism is evidence of how he has committed the UN to a pro-business agenda. The UN has effectively become a platform for policies and activities that suit the agendas of large corporations. Ironically, these same corporations are among the actors most responsible for climate change and the impending global disaster it brings with it.
By announcing he is withdrawing the UN from action to influence the more inclusive global talks the Secretary-General is sending the message that he is giving up on solutions that come from those interested in serving the interests of humanity as a whole. This undoubtedly provides comfort to corporations worried that concerns for the planet’s atmosphere might limit their growth. It also satisfies the richest most power countries in the world, especially the United States, whose development depends on the growth of corporate interests. Perhaps, however, the UN should be asking is this best for the planet that we all share.
While expressing concern for corporate interests the Secretary-General avoided concerning either himself or the UN with the failure of the international community to act to address the adverse impacts of climate change. These impacts are expected to lead to the deaths of five million people, mostly children, by 2020, according to the humanitarian research organization DARA in a study done in conjunction with the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of vulnerable countries.
The number of deaths is also projected to rise to one million every year by 2030 and continue to rise thereafter in business-as-usual scenarios. A this rate, by the end of this century, more than a hundred million people, mainly those in the poorer parts of the world—particularly Africa and particularly children—will die because of the lack of adequate action to address the adverse impacts of climate change.
In making his announcement the Secretary-General did say he would devote more of the UN’s time and resources to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, upcoming in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. This forum brings together concerns of the environment, including climate change, and other issues of development, such as poverty. Indeed, the original ‘Rio conference’ twenty years ago was where the preeminent treaty on climate change—the UNFCCC—was born.
The current agenda for the ‘Rio+20’ meeting, however, suggests that it might be used to support a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario. If this is the case, it will add fuel to the fire rather than addressing the main drivers of climate change that have put the world on the current path of disaster.
Originally envisioned as an enhancement to UN’s sustainable development agenda, the summit now appears dominated by its ambiguous ‘Green Economy’ theme. While such an agenda may appear to be forward-looking at a distance, on closer inspection, its represents an understanding of sustainable development that has widely been discredited.
Its poor reputation has been earned due largely to the failure of rich developed countries to meet their promises in the areas of environmental protection and development assistance to poorer countries. It is likely no coincidence that the same parties’ broken promises and their failure to make adequate promises, has plagued the climate change negotiations. In other words, the developing countries that drive the Green Economy agenda for Rio+20 are the same ones that have reneged on their responsibilities to date.
The problem runs even deeper for those seeking ‘climate justice’. These individuals and groups are seeking reparations from historic polluters for climate damage suffered in developing countries, as well as science-based action to deal with the adverse impacts of climate change that are in accordance with the UNFCCC’s framework of principles. To achieve such action, the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere need to be cut drastically. In other words historic polluters need to pollute less and by implication consume less.
The Green Economy agenda, championed by amongst others UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, rejects the suggestion that solutions to the climate and financial crises require us to all control our consumption. It does so on the emotional grounds that such action is either painful, costly or politically unfeasible…or all three. Instead, it promises a rosy win-win-win scenario, where by consumption can continue at its present rate bringing unlimited economic growth and thus development. The Greening factor, it suggests will make the development sustainable.
The rationale is that protecting our planet can be financially viable, and that ending poverty will be a natural by-product of the increased commoditization of nature.
According to Steiner, this requires a “Global Green New Deal” consisting of “a set of globally coordinated large-scale stimulus packages and policy measures that have the potential to bring about economic recovery in the short term while laying the foundation for sustained economic growth in the medium- and long-term.”
The global measures should, according to proponents of the Green Economy theory, include strategies to make low-carbon energy accessible to all, especially to poor nations. What it does not include is a realistic means of addressing the obstacles to this alleged ‘free market’ approach.
Michael Jacobs, author of The Green Economy, points out, for example, that intellectual property rights (IPRs) are significant obstacles to any free market approach as they make the playing field unequal.
Both Jacobs and Steiner suggest that world leaders may need to agree on exemptions or waivers for ‘green technologies’ along the lines of the flexibilities in TRIPS (trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights) agreements that ensure accessibility of affordable medicines in developing countries. The problems that have plagued TRIPS, largely due to the unwillingness of developed countries to really level the playing field, do not bode well for such a possibility.
At the climate change talks in Cancun, Mexico last December, discussions about IPRs fruitlessly ended when developed countries failed to make concessions. This happened despite the fact that more than a hundred developing countries had made progress on IPRs a priority. It happened even after a consensus was achieved in the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action, when the 135-member caucus of States known as ‘Group of G77 plus China’ had secured language on IPRs in almost all of the various texts that were used as a basis for negotiations.
Nevertheless, in an extraordinary move on the very last day of the negotiations, the Mexican President of conference and her advisors meeting behind closed doors and apparently under pressure from the United States, changed the text to one with no mention of IPRs.
If an agreement on IPRs was not possible in the climate change talks, which are less market driven, it is even more unlikely that an agreement can be reached at the Rio+20 summit.
As this is just one requirement for the implementation of a ‘Green Economy’ agenda, its political feasibility is perhaps more distant than that of negotiated, science-based action.
At Cancun, just as troubling was the move away from consensus, to a non-transparent style of decision making behind closed doors – a style that will likely also be used to reach agreement in “Rio’, where less procedural safeguards are in place than is the case in the UNFCCC framework. The suspicion that this shift created ultimately led to an outcry by both civil society organisations and States that were excluded from meaningful participation in the process.
The trend away from transparency in negotiations about the planet earth was even more visible at the Copenhagen meeting a year earlier. In Denmark the host nation in a desperate attempt to salvage an agreement that satisfied their developed country neighbors and the United States, tried to rush through an agreement negotiated behind closed doors while almost all of civil society was not even allowed to enter the conference premises. The so-called Copenhagen Accord was, however, rejected by the majority of States when put before the plenary gather and ultimately only ‘taken note of’.
Instead of accepting responsibility, the developed countries point the finger at the UN, eventually inducing the UNFCCC Executive-Secretary Mr. Yvo de Boer to resign. A new Executive-Secretary, Ms Christiana Figueres, from the Latin American country of Costa Rica, was appointed to this post at the level of UN Under-Secretary-General by the UN Secretary-General. She was tasked with fixing the problems.
It now appears that this may have meant ‘fixing’ an outcome that was palatable to the countries that are primarily concerned with protecting a business agenda.
Certainly, the leaders of developed countries, particularly American President Barak Obama and his host Danish Prime Minster Lars Løkke Rasmussen, did not appreciate that the democratic process at Copenhagen had stood in the away of their intentions.
Nevertheless, it is not surprising that the Copenhagen aftermath ultimately led Ban Ki Moon to start shunning the climate talks and declare Rio+20 the single new priority on the UN’s environment agenda.
In Copenhagen, Ban Ki Moon stood by the Danish hosts as they tried to push through the contentious Copenhagen document during an all-night meeting. And he steadfastly refused to withdraw the secretly negotiated text even after several countries had indicated their opposition to it.
Most of these countries had opposed the Copenhagen document because it was not adequate to prevent the most serious adverse impacts of climate change. Particularly, the so-called pledge-and-review system allowed each country cuts emissions as it pleased and, as we now know, led to aggravate cuts that are so low that the resulting warming will have deadly consequences for millions of the most vulnerable people in the world.
The Copenhagen text provided the 193 UN nations that are States Parties to the UNFCCC an ambiguous and non-binding document that appeared to contradict legally-binding obligations in the UNFCCC and it Kyoto Protocol, both which contain legally binding obligations for developed States to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
In Copenhagen, Ban Ki Moon—using a slogan enlisted by campaigners supporting a stronger legally binding climate treaty—declared in Copenhagen that “the deal was sealed”.
During the intercessional climate negotiations in 2010 the disagreement between developed and developing countries intensified. This undoubtedly made Ban Ki-Moon feel uncomfortable. For the UN Secretary-General to oppose dealing with climate change through a binding legal agreement would put him in an impossible place.
The Secretary-General would be placing himself him at odds with the wishes of the overwhelming majority of UN Member States, while at the same time place him in the position of also appearing to oppose the clear requirements of the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol. The Secretary-General had to find a way to continue to support the Copenhagen agreement while divesting himself of the apparent responsibility of doing so.
By opening address to the Cancun meeting he had apparently made up his mind. Balancing the competing views of his quandary he said he was “very concerned that our efforts so far have been insufficient” and that the UN was “still not up to the challenge.” He then pandered to the masses—the majority of States and civil society whom he was addressing, by declaring that “business as usual can no longer be tolerated” and that “Cancun is a breakthrough” because the “time of waiting when everyone is watching is over.”
The stage was set for an agreement and then an exit. If the Cancun meeting to adopt a Copenhagen look-a-like agreement, he could then divest the UN of responsibility for the global climate at least until her was re-elected for his second term in office.
This might have worked if it were not for the fact that the UN is inextricably entwined in the climate change negotiations. Not only does one of his Under-Secretary-Generals lead the Secretariat, but most States see climate change as one of the most important global problems. Indeed, they told him this when he hosted a high level meeting on climate change in New York during the opening of General Assembly in September 2009.
Moreover, most States are likely to view the UN’s running away from the problem of climate change as a cowardly lack of global leadership, unbefitting of the world’s preeminent forum for diplomacy.
Ironically, the UN Secretary-General is trying to wrap his enthusiasm for the Rio+20 meeting in the same packaging that he had used to sell his concern for climate change. At Davos, as two years early at his own Climate Change summit in New York, he stressed that the, “once resource that is scarcest of all: Time.” 
In light of this truism – especially from the perspective of the millions of potential climate victims -- it is clearly irresponsible to allow for further, perhaps even indefinite postponement of the climate agreements that were scheduled to be reached in Copenhagen.
The ‘Rio+20 mania’ may create the impression that the only legal instruments to address climate change have effectively failed. If developing countries buy into this view, it is likely to give a final go-ahead to only voluntary action and spell the end of the legally-binding Kyoto Protocol. 
By sacrificing the Kyoto Protocol the UN Secretary-General may secure a second term in office, but at what price to our planet?

[1] Margreet Wewerinke is a jurists and expert in climate chnage at International-Lawyers.Org.

 Curtis Doebbler is a lawyer who teaches law at Webster University in Geneva.




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