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Kyoto to Copenhagen: Why UN's glacial global warming talks need overhaul

Some specialists are calling for an overhaul of the UN global warming process, which yielded only modest progress in Copenhagen.

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A life-size ice carving of a polar bear created by sculptor Mark Coreth stands in Trafalgar Square in London Dec. 11, during the climate summit.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters/File

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Take 45,000 participants, complex global-warming issues, and negotiators from more than 190 countries. Add a last-minute dash of presidents, premiers, and prime ministers, and what do you get?

Evidence at the recent Copenhagen climate talks that the whole process is overdue for an overhaul, according to several specialists.

Bolstered by a process that angered many and an outcome that pleased few, some analysts argue that the major issues – emissions reductions, levels of financial aid, for instance – are best resolved among a relatively small number of countries that are or will be top emitters of greenhouse gases. Oversight would fall to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which also would house the machinery for disbursing aid to poor countries for adaptation and green development.

Others suggest negotiating narrower goals, such as a carbon tax, or devoting a fixed percentage of every nation’s gross domestic product (GDP, the total value of its goods and services) to research, develop, and demonstrate a new generation of green technologies whose costs would be competitive with fossil fuels.

Whatever the path, many analysts say that once climate talks moved from affecting a relative handful of industrial countries covered by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to every country on the planet, a nonbinding accord, à la Copenhagen, was about the best one could hope for.

“It is profoundly difficult,” notes Robert Stavins, director of Harvard University’s Environmental Economics Program, “within the Framework Convention on Climate Change process, to make the kind of progress that’s going to be eventually required” to achieve the Copenhagen Accord’s implied goal of holding global warming to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F.) above preindustrial levels. Yet, he says, the accord is significant in no small part because it starts to erode the simplistic boundary the UN process has drawn between developed and developing nations.

The shift in process already has begun. In Copenhagen, the final deal was crafted by heads of state, or their representatives, from the US, China, India, South Africa, Brazil, in consultation with a somewhat larger group of developed and developing countries.

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Dispute over China's actions

Frustration at the outcome flared soon after the talks ended Dec. 19. In a blog post at The Guardian on Dec. 22, Mark Lynas, a member of the Maldives delegation who says he sat in on many of the last-minute negotiations, describes how China weakened the final accord, to the frustration of leaders from Germany and Britain, among others.

Yet some analysts say Chinese negotiators were trying to ensure that the countries most responsible for the onset of the global warming path – the leading industrial countries – continue to shoulder most of the emissions-reduction burden.

“Many of us were shocked” by attacks on China’s position, writes Yokling Chee, legal adviser to the Malaysia-based Third World Network, in an e-mail exchange. Rich-country formulations of a global emissions-reduction goal by 2050 of 80 percent below 1990 levels would have required absolute cuts of some 20 percent from the developing world.

Yet Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists have indicated that if countries agree on a goal of 2 degrees C, the developing world would have to substantially shift its emissions below business as usual. Because many developing countries have very low emissions, the bulk of that 20 percent reduction would fall on China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and other nations with many people still mired in poverty.

What makes a country 'developing'?

But the boundary between developed and developing nations is growing increasingly fuzzy, Dr. Stavins says. Sixty countries classified as "developing" by the UNFCCC process enjoy higher per capita incomes than Romania, the poorest of the countries falling into the “developed” category.

The key to improving the process may be to take a page from the way the world handles arms-control negotiations, suggests Frank Loy, who was the lead negotiator for the United States during the Clinton administration. When the issues are matters of life and death, as nuclear weapons and climate are, he notes, they should not be left to a general-assembly-like body that gives each nation the ability to block the process, he says. A “no” vote can come for reasons having nothing to do with the issues at hand. Instead, he adds, negotiations over the toughest issues should be conducted among the countries that are the biggest sources of concern. In addition, some suggest building a cadre of professional negotiators, just as arms-control negotiations are built on the work of full-time negotiators, rather than experts who dive into the issue for only a few weeks a year.

Better forum for climate talks?

That might mean moving talks over the toughest issues, such as emissions-reduction targets or verifying a climate accord, out of the UN process and into forums such as the major economies meetings or a group such as the G-20. Such an approach also might make it harder for large countries to mask their intentions and use poor-country proxies, as China is said to have done with Sudan, which at several points tried to slow the pace of talks in Copenhagen on what were seen as largely procedural grounds.

Indeed, on Jan. 10, the UK Press Association reported that support is growing within the European Union to shift from the UN to the G-20 as the forum for negotiating climate deals. The report quotes Spain's foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos as saying, "We need to change our negotiating strategy," then cites unnamed "Spanish officials" as acknowledging the desire for a change in negotiating bodies.

Even with that kind of move, the UNFCCC still has an important role, adds Andrew Deutz, senior policy adviser for UN affairs at The Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Va. It is set up to answer two critical questions, he says: Is everyone doing what they said they’d do? And are those actions adequate?

“So far, at every step of the process, the answer has been ‘No, we have to do more,’ ” Mr. Deutz says. “But it’s essential that if you have these different processes, with countries negotiating multilateral and bilateral agreements, the results of those have to be brought back to a central process.”

The UNFCCC would remain a forum where weaker developing nations can hold the rest of the world’s feet to the fire, he suggests. Small-island nations, for instance, are becoming advocates for more stringent emissions reductions, based on their reading of the latest science, he says. Several of those countries are expected to vanish with rising sea levels. African nations, with the greatest adaptation needs, are advocating more aid to poor countries. But the actions of a few would not hold up efforts to deal with the big issues.

In the end, “you have to be quite practical about this,” says Mr. Loy. “In what kind of a forum can you actually make much quicker progress than we’ve been able to make? That’s the test, because time is not on our side.”

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