Cock-up or Cop-out?

I thought about calling this article “The Road to Nowhere”, until I realised how inappropriate that would be for a process that really got going with COP3 in 1997 in Kyoto, and which has since seen the whole jamboree travel to such exotic holiday destinations as Buenos Aires (twice), Marrakech (twice), New Delhi, Milan, Montreal, Nairobi, Bali, Copenhagen, Cancun, Durban, Doha, Lima, Paris and Madrid (which stepped in at the last moment to replace Santiago when, with delicious irony, it was deemed unsafe due to riots against rising transport fares due in large part to rising fuel prices).  It’s not a road to nowhere, but a long road to many holiday destinations (and a few others), with no end in sight.

With COP 26 in Glasgow on the horizon (and no doubt increasing media stories ramping up the hype until it’s all over) I thought it might be useful to consider how we arrived at the failure that the Paris Agreement represents, after such a long and expensive (and greenhouse gas-fuelled) road.1

Stockholm

The first time the United Nations looked seriously into environmental issues was at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (also known as the Stockholm Conference), held in June 1972. As the UN’s website says, this “marked a turning point in the development of international environmental politics.” The Conference produced an 81 page report, and a long list of recommendations. In those days, of course, climate change wasn’t considered to be a problem – if anything, cooling was the issue, with temperatures dropping marginally between approximately 1940 and 1975. So, no mention of global warming, climate change and certainly not of climate crisis or “climate weirding” or anything of that ilk.  

Instead, there was real concern about what damage was being caused to the environment by humankind, and how an international approach was required to resolve the problems we humans were causing. Some of the later developments can, nevertheless, be identified in the recommendations that came out of the Stockholm Conference. It suggested that a Governing Council for Environmental Programmes should be set up within the UN; ongoing review by it of the world environmental situation and of national and international environmental policies; the creation of a voluntary Environment Fund to pay for new environmental initiatives within the UN system; the creation of an Environment Secretariat; the creation of an Environment Co-ordinating Board; the designation of 5th June as World Environment Day; and that a second, follow-up conference should be convened.

Robin Guenier1 has identified what he calls the Stockholm Dilemma. Basically, environmental issues were largely a western preoccupation, and it was necessary to involve poorer countries if the problems identified by the Conference were to be resolved. Yet the rest of the world was anxious to emulate the West’s success and alleviate the plight of its poor teeming millions.

The Conference broadly solved the dilemma by stating (I paraphrase) that environmental degradation has largely been caused by the development of the western world, but that in developing countries, most environmental problems are caused by under-development. Population growth was identified as a problem, but one that could be solved by the adoption of “appropriate policies and measures”. Thus, encouraging the developing world to develop was clearly the way to get the developing world on board with the process. Sounds familiar?

The timing wasn’t great, though. The oil price shock followed soon afterwards, so not a lot more happened for quite a while.

Rio

As the UN’s website tells us, The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the ‘Earth Summit’, was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992, on the 20th anniversary of the first Human Environment Conference in Stockholm. It brought together political leaders, diplomats, scientists, representatives of the media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from 179 countries for a massive effort to focus on the impact of human socio-economic activities on the environment.

At this stage, environmental issues, as we traditionally understand them, had still not been entirely swamped by an obsession with greenhouse gases and climate change. The Rio Conference produced the Convention on Biological Diversity (which, interestingly, provided for a dispute resolution procedure, unlike the Paris Climate Agreement); a Declaration on Principles of Forest Management (which, interestingly, provided for establishing systems for integrated environmental and economic accounting, and established an assessment process unlike the Paris Climate Agreement); the Commission on Sustainable Development; and some negotiations for the establishment of an agreement on straddling stocks and highly migratory fish stocks (though this doesn’t seem to have got very far).  

But Rio did more. Climate change was now on the agenda. And so the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was born. It came into effect in 1994, and it built on the divide between the developed and developing world that we saw at Stockholm back in 1972. It authorised developing countries to prioritise development over emissions reductions, and so the seeds that were sowed in 1972 in Stockholm blossomed into a divide that has bedevilled all attempts ever since to produce an international system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the whole process was doomed from this point on. China quickly seized on the distinction, ensured that it was categorised as a developing country, and effectively demanded that it would continue to retain that status. It should rapidly have dawned on the developed world at the first two COPs held at Berlin and Geneva that China was going to prioritise what it sees as its interests, and that it wasn’t interested in emissions reductions.

Kyoto

The third COP took place in Kyoto in 1997, but the Kyoto Protocol entered into force only on 16th February 2005 (for all the good it did). At this point, it’s worth quoting from the UN website:

In short, the Kyoto Protocol operationalizes the UNFCCC by committing industrialized countries and economies in transition to limit and reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions in accordance with agreed individual targets. The Convention itself only asks those countries to adopt policies and measures on mitigation and to report periodically. The Kyoto Protocol is based on the principles and provisions of the Convention and follows its annex-based structure.

It only binds developed countries, and places a heavier burden on them under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities”, because it recognizes that they are largely responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere.

In its Annex B, the Kyoto Protocol sets binding emission reduction targets for 37 industrialized countries and economies in transition and the European Union. Overall these targets add up to an average 5 per cent emission reduction compared to 1990 levels over the five year period 2008–2012 (the first commitment period).

And so the division (between developed and developing countries) first contemplated at Stockholm, confirmed at Rio, built on at Berlin and Geneva, became entrenched. The failures now start to come fix and fast. At Doha in Qatar in December 2012, an amendment to the Kyoto Protocol was agreed, for a second commitment period from 2013 until 2020. However, as it requires (but has not yet achieved) 144 instruments of acceptance, the Doha Amendment has not yet entered into force.

Kyoto also established the “Kyoto mechanisms,” which include the trading of emissions permits. The UN website claims that Kyoto “established a rigorous monitoring, review and verification system, as well as a compliance system to ensure transparency and hold Parties to account”. However, as we saw in How Do You Measure Hot Air? that isn’t exactly going well, and only an optimist would describe it as rigorous and transparent and believe that any country is being held to account.

Copenhagen

I remember the Copenhagen Conference in 2009 (COP 15) vividly. Gordon Brown was there and making a lot of noise.  If you believe the UN website, it was a marvellous success. Apparently it raised climate change policy to the highest political level. It was one of the largest gatherings of world leaders ever outside UN HQ in New York. More than 40,000 people applied for accreditation.  

And yet…my memory has been jogged by an article published on the BBC website on 22nd December 2009. It contains some memorable quotes:

Gordon Brown said that the talks were “at best flawed and at worst chaotic” and he called for a reformed UN process.

Gordon Brown (again) proclaimed that a global deal should not be “held to ransom by a handful of countries”.

Ed Miliband singled out China for vetoing an agreement on emissions, but in an article in the Guardian both he and Gordon Brown said a diluted deal was better than nothing at all.

China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, praised the summit in a statement, saying “Developing and developed countries are very different in their historical emissions responsibilities and current emissions levels, and in their basic national characteristics and development stages. Therefore, they should shoulder different responsibilities and obligations in fighting climate change.

Ban Ki-moon said the agreement must be made legally binding next year…

…We’re still waiting.

Paris never stood a chance.

Notes:

[1] In this article I have leaned heavily on an essay published on 29th June 2020 by Robin Guenier, who knows far more about this topic than I do. For those who wish to educate themselves on the subject, Robin’s essay can be found here:

14 Comments

  1. Mark, nice summary. I think (I’m too lazy to look it up) the US was the only nation to meet it’s Kyoto targets due to fracking. Perhaps these conferences could bestow some sort of special recognition for such accomplishments and make policy recommendations based on what caused these results.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Our government have a very curious approach to the art of the deal. They’ve already announced that they’re going to send the UK back to the 18th century, if the electorate let them (with the incessant climate alarm from all directions, we might; folk who have not studied the topic are probably inclined to believe all the stuff they are being told). That being the case, what trump can they play, what concession can they make, to winkle a reluctant country into similarly throwing its own populace over the blood-stained altar of Gaia and flashing a blade? To this unwise observer, it seems the only logical progression would be to offer other countries cash. Who knows, perhaps I am too cynical.

    But consider a similar multinational agreement for nukes. Would we announce the cancellation of all our nukes before the conference, in the expectation that our rivals will feel compelled to toss theirs also? It makes no sense to me.

    In any case, I live in hope. Our government can promise what it likes, but if the people disagree, that promise will become null and void. My hope is that we will reach that point sooner rather than later.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. JIT
    Back to the 18th century? Keep up lad! It’s the 13th or nothing, with the serfs tied to their native habitat for life, Britain reclaiming its rightful place in Europe (i.e. Gascony) and wild aurochs grazing on the commons.

    1972 is an awful long time ago. Back in the seventies Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger were famous rock stars, the West was fighting and losing stupid wars in Asia, and the Ecology party was at 2% in the polls. How things have changed!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Cock-ups and cop-outs? How very negative!

    Consider, for example, this hope-building quilt organised by M&S in the run-up to COP15:

    27 October 2009

    M&S Calls For Decisive Action At Copenhagen With Launch Of Online Patchwork Quilt

    Celebrities, business leaders and cabinet minister join call for tough action

    Marks & Spencer has launched a virtual patchwork quilt which allows ‘patchers’ to push for decisive action at the UN Climate Change Summit.

    The campaign, hosted at http://www.marksandspencer.com/PlanA, invites customers, employees, investors, suppliers and anyone concerned for the wellbeing of future generations to create an individual patchwork which includes a personal image and a message to those taking part in the Copenhagen negotiations.

    The first person to ‘patch’ was Marks & Spencer Executive Chairman Sir Stuart Rose. In his message he says: “Copenhagen is a unique opportunity to do the right thing. Doing nothing is not an option.”

    Other high profile ‘patchers’ that have already shown their support are Zac Goldsmith, Twiggy, Myleene Klass, Laura Bailey, Noemie Lenoir, Philip Glenister, and Erin O’Connor.

    Ed Miliband, Secretary of the State for Energy and the Environment, is also supporting the campaign. He says: “I am happy to see M&S supporting its customers in taking action. That is important because we will need all the popular pressure we can get to strike a deal that is ambitious, effective and fair.

    “The world cannot tackle climate change if we leave it to politicians alone. We also need people, companies, charities and every other group in society to act together.”

    The final quilt and a physical representation will be presented to the Government in advance of the summit, which starts on 7th December.

    Presentation pix here, at an archived govt Flickr:

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/energyclimatechange/albums/72157622794671823/with/4152923678/

    Cockups and copouts?

    Changed my mind. You’re right.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. JIT wrote: “Our government have a very curious approach to the art of the deal.”

    Because they aren’t dealing in economics, they’re dealing in virtue. Sackcloth and flails aren’t on the table yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Well, the BBC and the Guardian are getting very excited today about the noises being made by Biden and Boris. The usual subjects don’t seem to be in a hurry to commit to CO2 reductions, however. So, there’s no point, and worse still, we’ll carry on committing economic suicide and will continue to export our CO2 emissions to China.

    And the only comment from HM’s Loyal Opposition is along the lines that we need to be more serious about committing economic suicide more quickly.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Mark, the top news at the BBC is Biden’s announcement. Scroll down to the top ten most read news items, and it is nowhere to be seen. This tells me that few are interested in the latest inane pronouncements. I’m not interested either. I only listen to the climate stories out of duty – I already know that the BBC is not going to exercise any critical thinking. Rather than ask the obvious questions, rather than air a point of view that differs from the new orthodoxy, they only ever have someone, usually Madge’s Loyal Opposition, wailing about how it doesn’t go far enough fast enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. JIT
    We’re waiting for the second day of the summit to begin and the BBC doesn’t even have Biden’s announcement in the top 40 stories. Added to Biden’s tele-prompted mumble is a comment from Professor Thunberg (“Our generation will never forgive you till you drop down dead”) and a Spoonerism from Boris, who claims he’s not a bunny hugger.

    There are three thousand comments to the article, but the critical ones I saw were all sceptical of politicians’ promises, or opposed to redistribution by stealth. I looked in vain for any reference to evidence of dangerous climate change one way or the other.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Oh dear. From today’s top climate story in the Guardian:

    Greta Thunberg appeared to poke fun at Boris Johnson after he derisively used the phrase “bunny hugging” to describe climate activism – by changing her Twitter bio to read simply: “Bunny hugger.”

    Now she’s eighteen someone should explain to her the pitfalls of the English language, and the meaning of “Spoonerism.”

    Like

  10. It looks like some of the green measures such as cycle lanes are now coming up against robust local opposition, due to the heavy-handed and clueless way they are being thrust onto on communities. Here’s a story about traffic congestion actually *increasing*, due to cycle lanes in London:

    https://www.wseetonline.com/rs/2021/03/30/london-congestion-rose-33-per-cent-during-the-coronavirus-lockdown-study-reveals/

    The dream – fewer cars on the roads, people out and about on two wheels, enjoying the peace, calm and fresh air as they live the green life in Kensington and Chiswick.

    The reality – traffic gridlock and frustration, fewer people on public transport and more in cars due to Covid fears, emergency vehicles stuck or having to make detours, pedestrians and cyclists in uncomfortable proximity.

    And this could be only the beginning..

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Oops, didn’t mean to like my own comment! Just meant to edit it and add something to the effect that as the climate caravan approaches 2030 we’ll probably be seeing a whole mass of similar “Great Leap Forward” style measures that somehow manage to take two steps back.

    Like

  12. Geoff, I’ve just done my duty and tuned in to the WaPo livestream of day 2. It has been going for 82 minutes, and I’ve joined 11 others in the global audience. So far as I can see the most watched stream is Fox with 88 viewers (maybe YouTube is not showing me the most watched streams, but this seems illogical).

    Alex, I don’t usually like any comments, but I’ve added a like above to keep yours company!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. As I said at the start of this article, there was a time when the UN seemed to care about the environment, and held conferences in a serious attempt to deal with environmental issues. Since then, of course, it’s all been blown off-course by an obsession with climate change. Compare and contrast.

    COP 26 is to go ahead with potentially tens of thousands being given special treatment despite covid, and despite the nonsense of tens of thousands travelling by aeroplane half-way round the world to discuss (yet again) the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    Meanwhile:

    “Major UN biodiversity summit delayed for third time due to pandemic
    Cop15 negotiations to set this decade’s targets on nature to be split into two, with face-to-face meetings delayed until 2022”

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/aug/18/cop15-un-biodiversity-summit-hit-by-third-delay-due-to-pandemic-aoe

    “A key United Nations biodiversity summit has been delayed for a third time due to the pandemic, the Chinese environment ministry has announced, as environmentalists pledged the delay would “not mean taking our foot off the pedal”.

    In a statement, the Chinese ministry of ecology and environment confirmed that Cop15, the biggest biodiversity summit in a decade, would be delayed, and that negotiations for this decade’s targets will be split into two phases so that governments can meet face-to-face in Kunming, China, in the first half of 2022.

    The talks had been scheduled for October this year after two previous delays due to the coronavirus pandemic. The first phase of the meeting, which will be largely procedural, will be held in the Chinese city between 11 and 15 October, with most people attending virtually. Countries will then negotiate the targets for the global biodiversity framework that governments will aim to meet by the end of the decade in Kunming from 25 April to 8 May 2022.

    The draft text of the framework includes proposals to reduce pesticide use by two-thirds, eliminate plastic pollution and protect 30% of the Earth’s land and sea.

    In a statement, the Chinese environment ministry said it would continue to work with the UN to overcome the impact of the pandemic and fulfil its obligations as a host country.”

    Had COP 26 been dealt with in this rather -ff-hand way can anyone imagine a representative from Greenpeace saying (mutatis mutandis) this:

    “Li Shuo, a policy adviser for Greenpeace China who has been following the biodiversity negotiations closely, said: “Given the urgency of the biodiversity crisis, the decision to delay talks is not ideal. But in light of the global pandemic and the need for face-to-face negotiations, it is an inevitable choice.”…”

    Like

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