Complex Politics Permeate Climate Change Negotiations



Most would welcome the inclusion of climate change within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) due to the unprecedented development threat that it presents. Yet this is not the case in the political arena due to perceived conflicts with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Responsibility is also a major sticking point and most of the upcoming negotiations will centre on this. The consequences of climate change are well known but the politics of climate change negotiations are complex and do not reflect the urgency with which we should be acting.

Recent negotiations via the UNFCCC have been lacklustre. The legally binding international treaty designed to reduce carbon emissions, the Kyoto Protocol, has been described as just ‘modest’ due to the lack of commitment from big emitters. 2011 saw Canada become the first country to withdraw from the treaty while the second commitment period (2013-2020) does not include the likes of the USA, Russia and Japan. Only Europe and Australia now have binding targets while big emitters such as China only have voluntary targets. As well as a lack of commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, countries have been slow to contribute to mitigation strategies. The idea of a Green Climate Fund (GCF) was developed at the 2009 Copenhagen meeting and formally established at the 2010 climate meeting in Cancun with the aim of raising $100 billion per year up to 2020, yet the GCF is only now showing signs of meaningful development. The Green Climate Fund is designed to reflect the ethical concept of climate justice, whereby developed nations are responsible for the majority of emissions up to the current day while developing nations are more susceptible to the effects of climate change and have less financial capacity to mitigate these effects, hence the industrialised nations of the Global North have a responsibility to financially assist those in the Global South.

No country has been able to pledge to the GCF due to the slow process of agreeing how the fund should be operated. This was only agreed in May this year and the GCF is now working towards a resource mobilisation process which will be complete in November. Germany has already pledged US$1 billion towards the GCF and it is anticipated that the UN Climate Summit next month will see more countries contributing to the fund. The Climate Funds Update, a joint initiative between the Heinrich Böll Stiftung (HBF) and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), will contain information on these pledges when it is updated in September.

The slow implementation of the GCF has once again exposed the fault lines between ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ nations. A climate change meeting between Brazil, South Africa, India, China took place last week and much of the rhetoric emanating from the meeting was directed at developed nations suggesting that they take a lead. The deputy environment minister for Brazil said:

“The developed countries need to walk their talk… developed countries have to promote evidence of what they are doing before asking us to provide data about our achievements.”

There were further calls for immediate capitalisation of the GCF, citing the importance of finance for assisting poorer nations in tackling climate change. China has said that a legally binding provision of climate finance for developing countries should be a precondition to any deal agreed in Paris 2015, the conference where a universal and binding climate deal is hoped to be achieved. Further, there is likely to be conflict over the Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC) principle that is enshrined in the 1992 UNFCCC constitution. This was initially designed to reflect historic emissions and varying capacities to act, yet the world has changed since the early ’90s and the geopolitical shape of climate agreements has shifted substantially. The Climate Network has called for a reinterpretation to provide a more stable foundation on which to agree a deal but that would add an extra layer of difficulty to already fragile relationships.

There is no doubt that climate change has serious implications for sustainable development which is an important feature of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), ‘ensure environmental sustainability’ was included in the original MDGs. The new post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals have gone one step further and explicitly mentioned tackling climate change as goal 13: ‘Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts’. This has proved to be a source of tension with the UNFCCC due to the perceived monopoly on tackling climate change via an international forum. This has resulted in a disclaimer contained within the SDG document, “Acknowledging that the UNFCCC is the primary international, intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change.“ The UNFCCC is designed to be legally binding while the SDGs are not. Within goal 13, the GCF is mentioned: “fully operationalize the Green Climate Fund through its capitalization as soon as possible.” This can be viewed as a manifestation of the frustration that many developing countries have felt at the slow implementation of the GCF and a wider scepticism of the commitment of developed countries to take responsibility. However, viewing climate change as a threat to sustainable development is important as it reframes the problem as a multidimensional one that challenges socio-economic stability by exacerbating global poverty and inequality. This somewhat removes the politics of blame that always take place at UNFCCC conferences as it suggests that climate change is a problem that affects everyone and should be solved by everyone. However, politics does not totally escape the SDGs as many countries, notably China and India, expressed concern about climate change being included in the SDGs as it ignores the CBDR-RC principle. Excluding climate change from the SDGs would have rightly caused outrage within the development community given the wide-ranging and profound consequences of climate change and the fact that the SDGs are designed to last until 2030, when climate change will be an even more impending problem.

It is important that the SDGs effectively complement the UNFCCC process as the SDGs focus more on adaptation and awareness strategies with relation to development while the UNFCCC tackles the root problem of reducing carbon emissions. Realistically, the Paris 2015 meeting represents the final chance for an effective and comprehensive emissions reduction agreement given the length of time it takes to prepare the foundations for such an agreement. Firm commitments to provide capital for the GCF would no doubt ease the path towards Paris 2015; if developed countries show some commitment towards supporting poorer nations then the chances of an effective climate deal would increase. Including the CBDR-RC principle within the SDGs would further increase the chances of a climate deal but the developed nations will not like to be seen as appeasing developing nations, spearheaded by China, as it suggests a shift in power from West to East.

It may be painful for developed nations to admit it but they know that China and India both need to be on board for a climate deal to be successful. Similarly, the USA needs to play a leading role and is perhaps the one country that has the potential to bring everyone else together through its actions. Including climate change within the SDGs should be viewed as a positive as it acknowledges the threat of climate change to sustainable development and if a climate deal is not achieved it provides some form of safety net. Although including climate change within the SDGs was not welcomed by some, the inclusion of the GCF has the potential to ease relations in the run up to crucial meetings next year. The politics of climate change are complex and it is almost certain that the major power blocs will have to offer some concessions along the way to help forge a common path. Paris 2015 will be a major turning point in the fight against climate change, hopefully for the better.

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