COP-19 Reflection: Not just national greed...

December 11, 2013

I had never closely followed any international environmental negotiations before the 19th United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP19), and because of that I previously assumed that wealthy nations were simply too selfish to make the financial contributions necessary to curb global greenhouse gas emissions. I think that while following these negotiations hasn’t entirely disproved that, I have a better understanding of how these issues are certainly more complex than just national greed.

One of the first issues that struck me as a problem during these negotiations was that a small number of countries has a disproportionate sway on outcomes. The US and China, by the nature of their status as the largest emitters (by far) are certainly crucial to any agreement. However it was more countries like Australia and Japan, which due to their recent reneging on Kyoto protocol commitments seemed to affect the tone of negotiations. I have a bit more sympathy for Japan as they try to chart a nuclear power-free future while reducing emissions, but Australia’s position derives from their current government and prime minister’s indifferent attitude toward climate change. When a few countries back out, it really kills the atmosphere of global cooperation, and makes other countries understandably hesitant to commit to actions that would cost them without all the responsible parties paying their share.

The issues presented by Japan and Australia, highlighted another major challenge, which is that national politics can be difficult to reconcile with international politics. We don’t have to look far to see this, as the US is a great example. Much of our political leadership certainly wants no part of reducing emissions or financing other countries to switch to greener technologies. While our current president appears friendlier to these negotiations than perhaps the Bush administration, ratifying an international treaty will require more than just Obama’s signature, as we need a 2/3 majority vote in the Senate. And if anyone thinks that getting a 2/3 vote in the senate is going to be feasible, I would love to know how. As these issues become more pressing and there is political turnover, perhaps consensus will become an easier task, but I can see how difficult it is for a delegate at one of these COP’s to negotiate without being certain of what they can realistically achieve in their own country.

International trust is the last matter that has struck me as hard to come by. It seems clear that both developed and developing nations don’t wish to act unless the other side demonstrates they are committed to change. Developing nations are understandably fearful of trusting former imperial powers, and their general refrain during COP19 negotiations was that they refuse to act unless wealthy nations first supply them financing. Developed nations on the other hand don’t want to commit money in vain, and see it get lost to corruption or ineffective/ unstable governments. Of course, these concerns don’t even touch upon the international conflicts between countries that make developing trust a difficult challenge. I can’t imagine that cooperation between countries like the US and Iran would be easy to achieve on any issue, and unfortunately, environmental issues rank lower in priority than many other issues.           

I think I’ve got a better understanding of why climate negotiations are stuck in gridlock, but I’m still somewhat at a loss on how we can move beyond these challenges and actually address climate change. I do think that there is more of a place for bilateral negotiations, since the UN negotiations are so slow and cumbersome with the sheer number of issues on the table and countries present. However we still need the UN forum so that small countries with little power (e.g. Pacific island nations) can be heard and supported. But most of all, I think we need more leadership. We need more countries like Norway to demonstrate that you can provide financing while still remaining a successful country. Norway for example has pledged hundreds of millions to REDD+ and forestry related mitigation programs. In the next few years, I hope we see the US step into a stronger leadership role, but at the moment I’m pretty pessimistic on that happening and any meaningful agreements being made before 2020.

-Kyle Peet