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Past Climate Change Negotiations

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was set up following the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, two years after the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere passed 350ppm (the level which many scientists now say we must return if we are to avoid runaway climate change).  

The aim of the UNFCCC is to reach a precautionary, timely and equitable agreement to cut global carbon emissions.  With 185 member nations and many conflicting interests, it was never going to be easy.
For a non-judgmental  summary of the UNFCCC since 1992, see: 

The overall target of a 5% emissions reduction compared to 1990 for industrialised countries was to be met through cuts ( 8% in the European Union, Switzerland, and most Central and East European states; 7% in the United States (although the US refused to sign); and 6 per cent in Canada, Japan, Hungary, and Poland.

It was soon apparent that carbon reduction targets needed to be more ambitious, so the 1997 Kyoto Protocol laid down new targets from 2005 which required industrialised nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% between 2008-12.  However, the USA refused to ratify Kyoto because it did not oblige emerging nations to control their future emissions.  Developing nations were not happy because Kyoto did not address compensation for climate impacts and because powerful emerging nations like India got the lion’s share of Kyoto’s ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ funds.  Environmentalists and scientists were unhappy because Kyoto’s carbon targets were inadequate and based on political horse-trading, not science. 

After hopes of a climate deal in Copenhagen in 2009 came to nothing, the UNFCCC reached a last minute deal in Durban in December 2011. This extended Kyoto’s term beyond 2012 and committed delegates to agree terms for a new global agreement by 2015, to be implemented from 2020.  The ‘Durban Platform for Enhanced Action’ was historic because it was the first time all nations agreed to be covered by one agreement.  However, it failed to address the core issues of urgency and the overarching need for a science-based and fair rationale for sharing the burden of cutting future emissions internationally.

Perhaps the most damaging consequence of Kyoto is that arguments over small print to protect national interests have kept innovative carbon reduction proposals off the agenda.  This needs to change.  Early in 2012, the UNFCCC requested nations and observers to submit proposals for a post Kyoto agreement.  However, some countries, notably India, seem willing to backtrack on the commitments made in Durban and have refused to be bound by the terms of any new UN deal until 2020. This means India will only start to cut their carbon emissions until after that date and only once the global average of per capita emissions reaches it own (currently 1.6 tons of CO2 annually).

Environmental NGOs from around the world have come together to form the Climate Action Network, whose policy statement is here:
This seeks to be FAB – Fair, Ambitious and Binding.  It is full of well considered strategies to reduce deforestation, clean up the shipping industry, encourage renewable energy, end subsidies to fossil fuel companies and many other issues. It is a long list, but it does not articulate any guiding principle for sharing the burden of cutting emissions between nations. This makes it difficult for individuals and businesses to relate to.


The Australian economist Ross Garnaut gives an insightful summary of current climate negotiations here:

For a more detailed survey, see Chapter 3 of the Garnaut Review, 2011.  It is written from Australia’s perspective, but is based on the need for agreement on principles for sharing the burden of cutting emissions among all nations – which is all the more important given India’s recent attempts to delay action to cut its emissions beyond 2020 – in contrast with China which is arguably doing more to reduce emissions than any other economy.

Apart from the position that only developed countries should accept emissions constraints, the Kyoto model had other flaws. Rather than articulating principles for allocating for emissions responsibility, it left the job to political horse trading.

The Kyoto agreement was also damaged by the refusal of two of the developed countries to ratify the agreement they had helped to negotiate. The Clinton administration had not been able to secure congressional support for the ratification of Kyoto. The Bush administration, elected in November 2000, elevated non-ratification to a policy objective. After the 2000 election in the United States, Australia followed a similar path until it ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2007 in Bali.

For an excellent, if depressing, analysis of the UNFCCC meeting in Doha, Dec 2012:

Our View:
Without a new agenda which combines a science-based rationale with clear ethical principles, which C&C can provide, future negotiations at the UNFCCC will not succeed


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