Picking up the pieces, regaining momentum after Copenhagen

UNFCCC - COP15 - Negotiations
UNFCCC - COP15 - Negotiations

By José Ignacio García SJ

9 April 2010

The United Nations Framework on Climate Change will resume meetings after the failure of the Copenhagen Conference. The two major issues, besides the financial instruments, are the need to conclude a legally binding agreement and to agree transparent rules to assess compliance.

Although a large majority of commentators consider the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference to have been a failure, certain influential voices have stressed the value of the Conference’s agreements. Lord Stern, professor at the London School of Economics and author of a key report on the economic and social assessment of climate change, has affirmed that “this process has itself been a key part of countries stating what their intentions on emissions reductions are – countries that had not stated them before, including China and the US”.

In this way he identifies a major achievement of the Copenhagen Conference: the commitment shown by the two largest emitters of CO2 to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. A second major achievement was the recognition of the 2ºC figure as the upper acceptable limit of global warming. Thirdly, there is now a financial commitment to contribute to the mitigation and adaptation measures that the developing countries will need to undertake over the coming years.

Admittedly, expectations were very high, and – as Lord Stern also said – rich countries should have “better handled” the negotiations. Both these factors reinforce the sense that Copenhagen was an immense disappointment. But we are not at the end of the road; on the contrary, this is a very long journey. It should be remembered that the various targets are scheduled to be achieved by 2020 or 2050. This long timescale may explain why politicians scarcely struggle to find better remedies, being more attentive to short-term elections considerations than to the long trajectory of measures to respond to climate change.

The next meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) takes place in Bonn, from 9th to 11th April 2010 and several NGOs have proposed the slogan: ‘Time to pick up the pieces’, a motto that accurately describes the current stage of the overall process.

So far the UNFCC has received from seventy-five countries submissions of national pledges to cut or limit emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020. Among these, 41 industrialized countries formally communicated their target and the rest, developing countries, offered information on the actions they consider appropriate to mitigate the impact of climate change – provided that they receive the appropriate support in terms of finance and technology.

These submissions should be regarded as initial steps towards a robust and legally binding agreement which, by a step-by-step approach, will recognize the differences between the developed and developing countries in respect of the targets themselves and the means of achieving them. Cancun in December 2010, and South Africa 2011, should be the UNFCC’s points of reference to attain its ambitious objectives. Other important elements, not to be forgotten, are those which concern the essential transparent and consistent rules that will enable accurate assessment of countries’ performance. Monitoring, reporting and verification are crucial procedures still awaiting clarification.

A final note should be added about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). After its prominent role in Copenhagen, and after emails were allegedly stolen from the computer of one of the leading scientists, further controversies arose: for example, mistakes had to be corrected which forecast the melting of glaciers in the Himalaya by 2035. All this put heavy pressure on the IPCC, which led the Secretary General of the UN to propose a review of the IPCC’s processes and procedures, to be conducted by the Inter-Academy Council, an independent body formed by the presidents of several countries’ academies of science. Such a review became necessary in order to strengthen the independence and the accuracy of the IPCC’s information, which remains crucial to the political decision-making process.

But as Copenhagen showed clearly, it is not only politicians and scientists who are responsible for picking up the pieces of this immense and highly sensitive challenge. The whole of civil society is called to contribute. The churches, in particular, are well-paced to contribute to the necessary long-term reform measures.


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