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UN sticks with climate agenda - but what prospects?

Richard Black | 15:15 UK time, Monday, 31 January 2011

Reports suggesting that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is retiring from the climate change agenda have had commentators wondering a) what it means for prospects of a new global climate agreement and b) whether the UN remains committed to the issue.

Ban Ki-moon


What appears to be happening is that two realities have converged.

One consists of indications that a new global deal remains some way away - certainly further away than the next UN climate summit in Durban, South Africa.

The other is that a much more major event - Rio+20, Stockholm+40, Earth Summit Mark 2, Earth Summit 2012, whatever you like to call it - is now firmly on the horizon.

It's happening in May 2012, which means that the UN chief and his officials need to devote a lot of energy to it now if it's to make a significant impact.

With only a certain number of expert staff and resources to call on, some important people in Mr Ban's office will now be spending much more of their time looking to Rio, and correspondingly less to Durban - that's all.

That the UN remains committed to the goal of a new global climate agreement can be seen from the fact that Mr Ban chose climate change as the issue to flag up during his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos:

"Climate change is showing us that the old model is more than obsolete. It has rendered it extremely dangerous. It is a recipe for natural disaster. It is a global suicide attack."

So that's the commitment question. But what about the prospects for that elusive global deal this year?

Not good, reading between the lines.

Since the last UN summit in Cancun, Mexico, developments suggest that a number of major governments are backtracking - not from their headline commitments, but - possibly more importantly - from the actions needed to achieve those commitments.

We have seen Japan abandon its emissions trading plan over concerns on competitiveness.

Australia has just scrapped a number of initiatives aimed at promoting green technology, such as the Green Car Innovation Fund, in order to pump more aid into flood-struck Queensland.

These moves come on top of the Canadian government's defeat of climate legislation back in November.

Meanwhile, in what's politically still the most important country in this context - the US - although the administration is ploughing ahead with proposals aimed at curbing carbon through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), what's equally clear is that opponents are building up a major head of steam.

Challenges in Congress to the EPA's right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions look certain to happen.

For President Obama and his team, this raises two questions: a) can the EPA maintain its mandate in the face of opposition? and b) how will the fight play out politically?

Ipanema Beach

Rio 2012 will have to find room in a packed agenda - how will rising temperatures fit in?

(If you want to catch up with everything that happened in Cancun in just two minutes, by the way, and have a smile on the way, try this hand-puppeted account from the UK Youth Climate Coalition.)

This is the phase of the year when ideas are being gathered on how the UN climate process should run leading up to the end-of-year summit.

But this time, the existence of Rio+20 provides additional context.

Rio, and Stockholm before it, were not centred on climate change, even through the issue raised its head at both events.

Instead they looked across the piece at the sustainability of human societies.

This is where Rio+20 is heading as well. So what role should it play on climate change? Is it a place for big thinking or for smaller-scale, more tangible action? Should it give new impetus to the existing thrust of UN negotiations, or aim for a fundamental re-shaping of the process?

For people who have spent the last 20 years striving to bring countries to agreement on climate change, does Rio+20 present an opportunity or a threat?

The UN itself is pushing the theme of the "green economy" for Rio. But what exactly is that? And how are the twin ingredients of environmental protection and economic growth to be prioritised relative to each other?

These are not straightforward questions, but they do bear down intimately on climate change as well as on other environmental issues.

And they ought logically to play some role in shaping the UN climate process for the next decade, as well as shaping the policies of governments who will presumably sign up to whatever comes out of Rio, albeit - presumably - after the usual protracted wranglings and last-minute fudges.



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