Chimney smoke
© Financial Times

Christiana Figueres startled delegates when she addressed the United Nations climate conference in Bonn last week: “I do not believe we will ever have a final agreement on climate change, certainly not in my lifetime,” the Costa Rican diplomat told them.

“If we ever have a final, conclusive, all-answering agreement, then we will have solved this problem. I don’t think that’s on the cards.” Addressing the issue successfully would “require the sustained effort of those who will be here for the next 20, 30, 40 years”.

Her words count, and not only because of her 15-year involvement in tackling global warming. Next month, Ms Figueres takes over from the Netherlands’ Yvo de Boer as executive secretary of the UN’s climate change secretariat, based in the former west German capital.

As Bonn’s low, heavy skies pelted delegates with rain, much of the rest of the talk during the long sessions was of technical matters such as the measurement of greenhouse gases. But in quiet conversations in the corridors, in cafes over hurried coffees or while scurrying between thunderstorms, the deeper question some officials were asking was whether there was indeed any point in continuing with this type of negotiation, which had failed for 20 years. Could the UN climate talks be reformed – or were they just too broken to fix?

For more than three years, the chief aim has been to set a deadline for when talks must result in a fully legally binding international treaty, which would replace the flawed Kyoto protocol when its main provisions expire in 2012. Last December’s Copenhagen summit, the most important gathering of world leaders ever to engage with global warming, ended without a firm outcome amid scenes of chaos and acrimonious disagreement. Six months on, the views articulated by Ms Figueres mark an important new stage in UN thinking on how the world’s response to the threat of warming will take shape.

Today’s political atmosphere is, many officials privately acknowledge, even more hostile to a climate deal than it was last December. Leaders around the world, already preoccupied by the aftermath of the financial crisis and recession, are in some cases having to impose painful public spending cuts.

In Europe, keeping the euro intact and shoring up Greece and other wobbling economies has left little time for green policies. When Connie Hedegaard, the European Union climate change commissioner who chaired most of the Copenhagen summit, suggested in May that the bloc’s emissions-cutting target could be toughened, she was greeted with derision by sections of business.

In the US, a bill on climate change that would have brought in a cap-and-trade system to put a market price on emissions was in effect shelved as it lacked support among Democrats. Proposals for a new energy bill are still in flux.

Outside the conference centre, protesters bearing banners and placards acted as a reminder that the real environmental story was happening elsewhere, as they railed against BP and its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which has already resulted in some restrictions on oil exploration. The spill could swing public opinion on the energy industry and the environment in unpredictable ways.

As if all of this were not enough to damp the hopes of the negotiators, there was the “Climategate” scandal, which rocked the world of climate science. Allegations of multiple flaws in climate science, and e-mails that appeared to show scientists distorting and hiding data, led to a resurgence of the sceptics who argue that the threat of warming is overblown and attack what they see as expensive and unnecessary measures on emissions.

Given these factors, even some of the strongest advocates of a climate treaty have seemed to lose heart. Ms Hedegaard says the hopes of some at Copenhagen – that a treaty could be drawn up at the next meeting, this December in Mexico – are mistaken. Even according to Mr de Boer, architect of the Copenhagen talks, “If we are to get a treaty, a year later [the end of 2011] is much more realistic.”

At Copenhagen, the world’s biggest economies signed up for the first time to limits on their emissions. But partly because of the complex and gruelling nature of the UN negotiation process, by which every nation must agree to every detail of the document before it can be passed, a treaty remained out of reach. When a handful of small countries – chiefly Venezuela, Bolivia and Sudan – refused to co-operate, they scuppered the chances of the agreement being adopted.

But Ms Figueres seemed to be acknowledging that any agreement reached will by its nature be partial and constantly subject to revision, for instance in the light of changing economic circumstances and evolving scientific knowledge. In that case, some in Bonn last week were mooting, countries could still work towards a legally binding treaty but it could be in a less rigid format. For instance, the definition of “legally binding” could be redrawn and a new agreement could include mechanisms for countries to take on a range of emissions targets depending on their circumstances. There could even be opt-outs for some countries on certain minor points.

Officials are also conscious that some flexibility needs to be shown to the US, where President Barack Obama’s ambitions for a legally binding treaty are constrained by domestic politics. At Copenhagen, Mr Obama offered a 17 per cent cut in US emissions, based on 2005 levels – provisional on domestic legislation setting limits on emissions. There is now scant chance of such legislation passing, owing to opposition within his own party and the increased power that the looming midterm congressional elections may give his opponents from November.

Without an emissions cap agreed at home, US officials would find it hard to negotiate a treaty capping global emissions. They also will not repeat the mistake of the Kyoto protocol, whereby the White House signed up to the protocol but Congress never ratified it.

Without the US, any new treaty would fail just as Kyoto did. Accordingly, some developed country officials told the Financial Times they were seeking ways to help the US finesse this point.

For some long-time participants in climate talks – which have been running in various forms for two decades without producing a global treaty that limits emissions – pursuing the holy grail of a comprehensive treaty is anyway a mistake. “I don’t think the most important thing right now is a treaty. It is a distraction,” says Paul Bledsoe of the US National Commission on Energy Policy, a group of experts that advises policymakers. “I’m not saying it isn’t the end goal – it is – but concentrating too hard on a treaty allows bad actors to throw up roadblocks and consumes the time of good actors who could be doing other things.”

A series of partial agreements on key aspects of climate change may be a more realistic way forward, he suggests. One of the more successful parts of the Copenhagen summit was a widespread acceptance of a format called Redd – reduced emissions from forest degradation and deforestation – that seeks to encourage flows of financial assistance from the rich world to poor countries that agree to preserve their existing forests.

Norway demonstrated its enthusiastic support for Redd in May when it signed the first deal under the concept, pledging to pay Indonesia $1bn to preserve large tracts of its forests. Pledges due from other nations, including the UK and Germany, could eventually increase this to $4bn.

Redd has its critics, however – some green campaigners point out that Indonesia still plans to cut down large areas of forest – and in its current form is more of a collection of guidelines on issues such as counting emissions rather than a fully worked-out mechanism for financing, on the model of carbon trading.

But financial assistance from rich to poor countries, to help them cut emissions and cope with the effects of warming, is a bone of contention in the talks. Rich countries have agreed in theory that flows of $100bn a year to poor countries, from public and private sources, will be needed by 2020, without any agreement on how this might be managed. Redd has shown that financing agreements are possible, says Mr Bledsoe.

Copenhagen was not as bad as many liked to present it, says Todd Stern, US envoy for climate change. By the end of the conference, the world’s biggest economies had signed up to an accord that marked the first time both developed and developing countries agreed to place limits on their greenhouse gas emissions.

“From my perspective, there was actually significant progress made at Copenhagen …I think we ought to devote a lot of attention and focus on building on that progress,” he says. Although the US still wants a full and comprehensive treaty, Mr Stern hints that this is not the only possible outcome. “Exactly what form [progress] will take, we don’t know yet.”

For some businesses, however, a move away from seeking a comprehensive climate treaty as soon as possible is a worrying prospect. Mark Kenber of the Climate Group, which represents companies that have made pledges on emissions, says the risk is that business could be left in limbo. For years, some companies have used the lack of a treaty as an argument for holding off on emissions cuts.

“Businesses want a level playing field, and that is what an international treaty provides,” he says. “It is theoretically possible to [have a series of] bilateral agreements and do this from the bottom up, but it is far harder than if you do it through a treaty.”

© Financial Times

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