Currently, the UNFCCC gets a new building in Bonn. The secretariat is going to move from the Langer Eugen (the tall building to the right) to the Altes Abgeordnetenhaus. Work is pretty well under way, as you can see, and it should be finished by the end of 2011.
Also in 2011, we expect another large climate conference to be held in South Africa, after this years’ COP16 will take place in Cancun, Mexico. Many observers have noted that the sheer size of UNFCCC conferences has gotten out of control, and some suggested to shrink their scale in order to improve matters. While this proposition certainly makes for a good discussion, here’s why I think it’s not going to happen.
The UNFCCC process has not delivered on a globally binding treaty that would serve to seriously limit greenhouse gas emissions. Yet it has provided two quite scarce resources in international politics: Attention and money.
There are not many issues in the international arena which repeatedly get the attention of dozens of government leaders at the same time, let alone the honor of their physical appearance. Heads of state are short on time, and therefore one could expect them to abate the UNFCCC process as long as there’s no real chance to get what they want (be that a weak, a tough or no climate treaty at all). Yet the stage is already set for the following scenario:
COP16 in Cancun (including the preparatory process already under way) will result in some of the still open technical questions to be resolved, while the really tricky issues will be postponed to COP17 in South Africa. Public expectations and hence pressure will rise again, even more so since governments don’t appear to strongly follow policies which would result in GHG reductions as co-benefits. And then government leaders will again make their way to a world climate conference, showing their commitment to whatever global concern and domestic agenda drives them there. So with regards to political attention, it’s hard to see how and why it should diminish over the next few years.
With $100bn developed countries promised to pay annually for climate change mitigation and adaptation by 2020 in the Copenhagen Accord, starting with $30bn fast track finance from 2010-2012, it is also clear that the UNFCCC process will remain a major political battleground for the upcoming years. It is not even necessary to believe that the money will actually flow in the end (and there’s already serious doubt about it). It suffices that developing nations expect that money, or parts of it, are going to be paid.
Furthermore, many issues are increasingly linked with climate change. While a lot of people have rightly criticised this “climate mainstreaming”, this has not persuaded the water or agricultural or biodiversity community to seek less rather than more links between their respective fields with global warming. And with $100bn promised to flow into developing countries by 2020, they would be stupid to do otherwise. Ideas like a polycentric approach towards climate change, as outlined by Elinor Ostrom in late 2009, or the German Advisory Council on Global Change’s 2010 vision for a three level strategy will inevitably take place within a climate-centred framework, which is in turn centred on the UNFCCC. The reason for this is that attention and money are inextricably linked to the mainstream climate political approach.
Given that, I think it would be sensible from this point onwards to start talking about various protocols to emanate from the UNFCCC process. Precisely because this process is so overblown, it could be useful to seek singular agreement on issues like forestry, finance, technology transfer, and the like. This would not only be good in terms of getting on-the-ground projects working to help mitigating GHG emissions and adapting to the effects of global climate disruptions. Also, binding commitments on GHG reduction targets are literally the last thing we need. It is much more important to start reducing emissions than agreeing to do so. If interested states (building a “pioneer group”) could manage to agree upon something like a Sustainable Use of Forests Protocol under the UNFCCC, this could shift perceptions of climate talks from utter failure to mediocre success. Why under the UNFCCC? Well, firstly all the other processes in which states have tried to agree upon a multilateral forest framework have failed, from the Rio Forest Principles via the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF) and the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF) to the current process, the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF). Only since talks about Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest-Degradation (REDD) have begun with relation to the UNFCCC, we have seen significant progress. The same is about to happen for other policy fields.
Such a process would pose significant challenges to the UNFCCC as it exists today. We not only need a real estate refurbishment for the secretariat as pictured above. We also need an institutional refurbishment, consisting of governance innovations that would allow the UNFCCC to follow such a multiple-track-approach. The Framework Convention could then become what it originally was intended to be, an umbrella for various sorts of agreements. As of today, these agreements have largely been designed in order to feed into one all-encompassing treaty. Yet one size fits nobody. So we should try getting more diversity in the process, less confusing and utopian than today, and more results-oriented and pragmatic. We will be stuck with the UNFCCC process for at least another decade anyway, so we might as well make some good use of it.