The End of the UN Process?

Wading through the mass of accounts of the last few hours of yesterday evening, commentaries lurching between despair and disgust, reports on the details and associated schisms, a few lines in particular caught my eye.

From the final paragraphs of the New York Times’ report, its correspondent John Broder wrote:

“Mr. Serra, the Brazilian diplomat, said that the process left many alienated, particularly the smaller countries that have little influence in a major international negotiation. Many involved in the process here suggested this would be the last time that 193 nations would gather in this way to negotiate such a complex accord.

“Certain groups like G-77 are not happy when a few people make decisions,” Mr. Serra said. “It’s not an inclusive exercise. Perhaps it can’t be.”

There’s an certain air of melancholy about this, a stab at both drama and future foreboding made in a fog of fatigue. Perhaps in a few days time, as the debris is cleared up, different sentiments may come to be expressed and dominate. But for now, it’s a thought worth pausing on.

One of the things that remains singularly unique about the climate negotiations, compared to so many other issues on the international agenda has been the relative openness and inclusiveness of the process. Not perhaps in terms of the inclusiveness to civil society over the past week, as friends in and around the Bella Centre would attest to (but even on this, to a degree found in few other international fora). I mean, rather, the inclusveness of a process that from the beginning has sought to include all the world’s countries.

This is remarkable, because of its rarity. Much agreement on global issues comes through a select group of countries who have a vested interest in what’s at stake. Everyone else can badger all they want, but at the end of the day are reduced to shoulder shrugs. The world of nuclear nonproliferation revolves around a handful of nuclear haves and would-haves; membership in the global WTO trade regime is relatively wide, but entry hurdles limit cost-free access and ensure that a general commitment to trade liberalization endures; even in other environmental settings, the much-lauded Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion was first negotiated between industrialised countries (as was its starting point, the Vienna Convention), and only after the Protocol was signed were India, China and other large developing countries brought into the fold. As with the UN Security Council, small groups is where decisions are made.

Universal participation in the UNFCCC-led regime has been justified in terms of the global complexity of climate change. The high-emitters, high-future-emitters, high-future-vulnerable – covering all these categories quickly brings most of the world into the realm of the relevant. But the future of the planet and whether we reach the tipping points that take us into runaway climate change depend on really, just the high-emitters and the future high-emitters. At Copenhagen this became known as the ‘circle of commitment’: the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, and variously also including the EU and Japan. This new G-whatever-you-want-to-call-it (perhaps already effectively rebranded as the Major Economies Forum), is where the bulk of the world’s current and future emissions lie, the pivot point of future temperature rise.

Does it really matter, therefore, where the decisions are taken that prevent the world from burning up? In a way. The legitimacy of the UN-led regime has also been based on the fact that those on the receiving end of impacts, the high-future-vulnerable, have had some say in the process. It’s an immensely important principle. Alongspide this, however is the recognition that Kyoto commitments will only be haltingly achieved, if at all. The legitimacy of the UN-led regime is down to this procedural legitimacy, not to any basis of efficiency or achievement.

So, to return to the point posed by Sergio Serra, is this the end of the universally-multilateral process? On one hand, the UN bandwagon rolls on, surely. COP16 is due to take place next December in Mexico City and as CMP6, still has a role overseeing the Kyoto Protocol until the end of its commitment period in 2012. The durability of UN processes should not be discounted, and across a panoply of issues, work continues month after month, year after year, routinely escaping the notice of the world’s press.

But will it be relevant? If a smaller, closed-off set of states can be the trigger for action and be rubberstamped by the rest, why should anyone concerned with climate change be too bothered? It’d be multilateral action, just not as we know it. There is, to be sure, no necessary logic for a smaller set of states to actually take the harder decisions needed (the difference between 2C and 3C). But neither is there for a process under a UN umbrella. Horse-trading takes place, in whatever the setting. We should fear that adaptation finance would be delivered in an ad hoc manner and not in any substantial way, or that the only developing countries on the receiving end of technology transfer will be the high emitters and high deforesters. In short, we could have an agreement that is environmentally effective without necessarily being environmentally just. In the absence of the latter, might the former be what we have to live with?

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