18 February 2011

If I ran the UNFCCC COP process...

This started as something of a rant on the ill logic of the UNFCCC COP process, following on my post on 14 December 2010, but I have elected to reframe this conversation in a more constructive tone.  Hopefully this will be better-received in the community than the mere rantings of a young(ish), topically- and socially-aware scientist with global aspirations.  I developed much of this discussion while gathering information for the beginnings of a timeline for use in my research, using Dipity, putting together dates and links for various meetings and reports that have come out regarding the relation between climate change and its anticipated impacts on numerous sectors of Earth science and society.  You can keep track of my progress on that mini-project on the Timelines tab listed near the top of the blog. 

And before you start to think that this is an episode of world-bashing in the name of US unilateralism and stoicism, think again, because it isn't.  I'm with the rest of the world here when it comes to the issues that need to be addressed in the UNFCCC process, and how little progress it seems is being made year-to-year on those.  I'll even do a little bit of US-bashing on that regard below.  I will readily admit that US leadership does not seem to recognize much, if any, of the subject matter at issue in adaptation to climate change.  Heck, too many of our leaders are too busy denying that climate change is even a problem to be addressed, or that it's the fault of humans, or that the science is valid, or that their donors constituents want them to address it... While US scientists contribute a great deal to what we know about climate change and the abilities of humans and other species to adapt to the anticipated global adjustments, US political leaders are not the people that the rest of the world should want to follow.

One of the principal issues is ignorance, though this is not limited to US leaders.  Before COP-15 in Copenhagen in December 2009, there was a Climate Change Congress of world-class scientists in the same city in March 2009.  The Congress hosted a comprehensive program and produced a Synthesis Report that was made available on 18 June 2009 to COP-15 negotiators, almost six months prior to the COP meeting.  There was no subsequent evidence that the "negotiators" at COP-15 had even glanced at the Congress Synthesis Report.  It is becoming more clear that the results of relevance are emerging from between-COP meetings and the science brought together there, rather than the "high-level" diplomatic-style negotiations of environmental ministers at the COP meetings themselves.  Scientists work constantly to lay the solid foundations for informed policy initiatives, but the politicians who actually lead the COP functions seem to bring their own agenda(s) and step right off of that foundation to their own sandy, quickly-eroded paths...

It is frustrating to see this as an outside observer after sixteen meetings over almost twenty years thus far.  Because it was quickly overtaken over by political agendas, the UNFCCC COP process has never fully evolved to the conceptual ideal of a "framework" of climate-change-related discussion with action-oriented spin-off activities.  This is the function of a "framework process" is it not?  To generate the initial discussions and activities that could then spin off and stand on their own as international agreements, conventions and treaties.  Over time these spin-offs would show the step-wise progression of international focus while the framework convention itself continued to evolve, constantly incorporating emergent concerns that had reached critical mass through a long process.  If I ran the UNFCCC process, this is how it would cycle: 
  1. Popular recognition:  local and global NGOs raise awareness and present empirical evidence of sectoral need.
  2. Scientific backing:  independent and government science provides proof of need for action, with scenarios of possible futures.
  3. Political support:  government accepts NGO pressure and scientific proof as call to action.
  4. Political advocacy:  cooperative builds between and among individual countries.
  5. COP meeting:  awareness building, stakeholder enlistment, and UNFCCC support for spin-off meetings.
  6. Spin-off:  meetings and work of NGOs, scientists, and government delegates, independent of UNFCCC COP.  The MOP process is a perfect counter-example here.
  7. International consensus:  declarations, agreements, and signatory conventions that are recognized and backed by the UN.
There would be no partisan politics involved, just delegates who represent the peoples of their respective countries.  The science remains inherently apolitical, and the NGOs are allowed no partisan attacks or political harangues against individual groups.  If the spin-off meetings cannot proceed constructively, offending parties found by the larger group to be blocking the process are sent home for replacement by the time of the next meeting.  As Benjamin Franklin appealed to his fellow signatories of the Declaration of Independence, just as the American Revolutionary War was just heating up, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

I mentioned above the counter-example of the MOP meetings.  At Copenhagen in 2009, The COP-15 meeting was collocated with the fifth Meeting of Parties (MOP-5) to the Kyoto Protocol, which was intended as the principal international agreement on emissions reductions and the global "carbon economy."  Again, in 2010, MOP-6 was collocated with COP-16 in Mexico.  At the risk of meeting fatigue, which I recognize is a real issue for leaders and NGOs involved in these processes, I would suggest that having the COP and MOP scheduled together, every year, is the very reason that COP has not spun off anything new since the Kyoto Protocol entered into force in 2005.  Every COP meeting since then has been dominated by the mechanics, wrangling, and negotiations of bringing the Kyoto Protocol to resemble real action on carbon emissions and climate change, all of which discussion should be limited to the MOP sessions instead.  There needs to be a clear separation, so that COP business as a "framework process" can proceed forward while the MOP is worked out on an independent schedule of meetings and agreements.  MOP discussions on the Kyoto Protocol might earn a side meeting at the annual COP meeting, but no more than that, because there are other issues and potentially more successful spin-off agreements to be addressed by the COP delegates.  For that matter, the US remains the biggest obstacle in the MOP process, still having refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol; that shouldn't hold back the rest of the world from making progress on the numerous COP issues within the scope of UNFCCC regard.

On the issue of emissions reductions and the Kyoto Protocol agreements, commentary from and centered on the US is pessimistic, at best.  One of the principal instruments of the Protocol in application to growing countries is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which was intended to allow flexibility in meeting emissions targets (limits) during their economic development.  While industrialized countries are subject primarily to efforts at emissions reductions, spurring ideas on how to keep their economies growing through this period of shifting energy sources and industrial-commercial transition, countries on their way into industrialization have a way to continue development in a responsible manner.  Instead, leading idea-oriented magazine GOOD has just recently declared that "Cap and Trade is Dead" and asks, "Now What?"  If we take that attitude for the industrialized countries, what hope do we have for the CDM?  We are seeing the early stages of an executive exodus from the UNFCCC forum.  Led by the US example left over from the Bush Administration, individual countries like Japan are instead shifting their aim to bilateral agreements and solutions.  To counter this movement and keep the issues and agreements aligned, the UNFCCC process needs to extend its reach, consciously and overtly, instead of simply leaking over semi-covertly at media and academic insistence into other global discussions such as the Davos World Economic Forum, which seems to have become such a massive event that lots of networking but little actual work really gets done there or in follow-up.  It is, seemingly, more in the lead-up to such large events such as Davos WEF that participants are more thoughtful and focused, with their own agenda in formulation and their "elevator speeches" in preparation.

So all of these things considered, it might seem that carbon is on the way out as a medium of international negotiation to determine the winners and losers under the influence of ongoing climate change.  Next up for discussion and negotiation are forests, for which a mechanism for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) was first introduced at COP-11 in 2005.  The REDD mechanism, a system of "carbon credits" tied to activities to preserve natural areas in forested countries, was set to paper at COP-13 in 2007 as part of the Bali Action Plan.  It has gone through several iterations and refinements over the years and COP meetings, even through opposition by the US, with hopes that REDD will soon emerge as a successor international agreement to the Kyoto Protocol.  The United Nations has, appropriately, declared 2011 the International Year of Forests.  Following the complete collapse of COP-15 negotiations at Copenhagen in 2009 and minor last-minute victories at COP-16 in Cancun in 2010, the time for discussion on forest resources has come.  But it seems to me, from initial forays into the topic, that forests bring about something akin to a hostage negotiation, so it makes such international dialogue more contentious.

To be sure, REDD still has its faults and may not yet be formulated to do what it intends.  A recent study published by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) and reported by ScienceDaily recognized that agreements such as REDD "have too often ignored local needs, while failing to address the most fundamental challenge to global forest management - that deforestation usually is caused by economic pressures imposed from outside the forests."  At the high-level tables of COP meetings, this is just more evidence that the representatives are out of touch with the populations for whom they claim to negotiate and work.  It is at this point in time and work that an effort such as REDD, with such recognition and viable alternatives, must be taken away from those tables and back to the people involved and affected where the real work of locals can proceed - in other words, REDD must be taken out of the UNFCCC's hands at COP meetings and developed as a process that has a chance of working out well.  As the chairperson of the group that produced that IUFRO study said,
"We are not saying we need to abandon a global approach to forest governance, but we do need to establish the appropriate roles... The REDD process, for example, might provide a great way to raise money for sustainable forest management and other forest programs, but much of the details and operational aspects would be undertaken at the regional and national levels."
Because the work behind REDD had reached a critical mass with the plan adopted at COP-13 in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007, if I ran the UNFCCC COP process then the issue of tropical forests would have been spun-off from the "framework" COP process to its own sequence of meetings and negotiations with an agreement and charter, based on the relevant parts of the Bali Action Plan, at COP-14 in 2008.  Alas, it remains now in common negotiation along with the Kyoto Protocol at COP/MOP events, and for how much longer depends on the willingness of political negotiators to let go, so that those more knowledgeable and representative of the issues can move forward in their hard work to bring about satisfactory agreements and conclusions.

So then, will the COP discussion come to water next?  Not likely, in my view.  There is an immense, vertically integrated, global effort at national and international organization around water as a medium not simply for the declaration of human rights, but also for the elevation of whole peoples from poverty.  On the one hand, the topic of water is not yet ready to die a horrible death in the public consciousness as a subject of overly bureaucratic and meaningless debate in such a forum as the UNFCCC COP meetings as they now proceed.  On the other hand, I think that those who work in water may not be as patient waiting for results in that forum as the forest community, which has seen more than five years pass from the time the subject was initially broached at COP-11, through the formulation of the Bali Action Plan and REDD, to the present ongoing disagreements on tropical forest sustainability.  Over that amount of time, the advocates of responsible water management have already brought about their own improved level of awareness and critical mass in the global development and environmental communities, though not necessarily yet in the dedicated science community.  To bring water as a medium of economic development into the COP process would actually be a step backward for the water community, unless such provision can be made for incorporation of the existing ongoing discussions about water issues without bringing all progress to a halt for 5-10 years while the rest of the UNFCCC process catches up.  Eventually, however, the emissions and forest and water communities must all come together in a properly integrated approach to climate and development issues.

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