Can the UNFCCC and COP ever succeed?

Source: UNClimateChange

Written by James Lo

UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is one of the most visible treaties aimed at tackling climate change in the world. With 197 parties to the convention and 165 signatories, it ranks among one of the most signed international treaties. Under the framework, the Conference of the Parties (COP) meets every year to review the national communications and emission inventories submitted by Parties. The COP assesses the effects of measures taken by parties to the UNFCCC and the progress made in achieving the ultimate objective of the Convention – preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with Earth’s climate system, entailing reductions in greenhouse gasses. The UNFCCC and COP, however, have recently come under scrutiny with their most recent failure to reach a consensus in Madrid in COP 25.

The 1992 UNFCCC differentiated between Annex I, Annex II, Non-Annex I and Least Developed countries (LDCs).

Annex I countries include industrialised countries that were members of OECD in 1992, plus countries with economics in transition, including the Russian Federation, the Baltic States and several Central and Eastern European States.

Annex II relates to just the OECD countries and require them to provide financial resources to enable developing countries to undertake emissions reduction activities.

Non-Annex I countries are developing countries, with some particularly vulnerable to climate change, including the Bahamas and Cook Islands.

Least Developed countries (LDCs) are 49 countries given special consideration under the Convention on account of their limited capacity to respond to climate change and adapt to its adverse effects.

What are the main issues plaguing the UNFCCC & COPs?

Despite the UNFCCC stressing equality and fairness and the importance of countries to participate and tackle the problem of climate change together, the differentiation of Annex I and non-Annex I countries, as well as the underlying classifications of developed vs developing countries, nevertheless seeped into national identifications at conferences and COP negotiations. Michael Richards stressed the difficulty of shifting away from national interests and towards the solving of climate change. The obvious case study here is the G-77 coalition + China. G-77 adopts the position of a traditional north-south divide where climate change is seen as another aspect of world economic order requiring “redistributive justice”. They demand the “developed” countries to take the first step of reducing greenhouse gases emissions, as well as defend the right of its members to emit to develop. The developed and developing countries also have differing conceptions of principles and responsibilities stated in the UNFCCC – Annex I countries focusing on cost-effectiveness and global efforts, while non-Annex I countries focusing on costs of technology adaption and equity.

The result of opposite viewpoints on who should take the burden of tackling global climate change is that global treaties and the outcomes of COPs have often been fudged. There are two scenarios in which this manifested. Firstly, there is a difference between global treaties and treaties that only concern a certain category of countries. This can be seen in the differences between the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement. Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the 37 countries listed as Annex I countries were set a legally binding target to reduce their emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels, for a period between 2008-2012. On the other hand, the Paris Agreement was a global treaty with 188 parties. The commitments outlined in the Paris Agreement were vaguer with no mechanisms forcing a country to set a specific emissions target by a set date. Moreover, the introduction of “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) and a long-term temperature goal to keep the increase in global average temperature to below 2oC provided parties with a lot more leeway in their implementation of climate change policies. The difference between the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement is the that the treaties that apply only to a particular category of countries can be seen to be more “powerful” compared to global treaties in terms of actions against climate change. Global treaties, with the need to appease everyone, do not have concrete targets compared to the legally binding targets set in the Kyoto Protocol and thus have less impact on climate change. The Annex I countries which signed the Kyoto Protocol reduced emissions by over 10%, while experts estimated that the flexibility of NDCs, industrialised countries failing to meet their own pledges and the attaching of conditions to reductions of emissions mean that the goal of the Paris Agreement will unlikely to be achieved.

Secondly, the differences in opinions between developed and developing countries have also led to “failures” of conferences in terms of lack of discernible agreements after the conference. The most glaring “failures” came in the COP 15, held in Copenhagen in 2009 and the most recent COP 25, held in Madrid in 2019, with very similar disagreements underlying the two conferences. In discussing the negotiations in COP 15, the head of the G77 believed that the draft agreement overwhelmingly favoured the developed countries as developed countries rejected calls for greater efforts to reduce emissions. Officials from China, India, Brazil and South Africa spoke out angrily about being pressured to sign up to a deal dictated by rich countries including the US, as well as expressed their anger that developed countries did not agree to more serious cuts. This stance was also seen in COP 25, with India leading the “Like-Minded group of Developing Countries” (LMDCs) which argued that the failure of developed countries to fulfil their pledges in the Paris Agreement was the main reason the world is currently so far from meeting its aim of avoiding dangerous warming. The failure to reach an agreement on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement in COP 25 was driven in part by a feeling that ‘some were trying to impose neo-colonial rule’.

Is there an alternative option?

With the outcomes of COPs being less than ideal for negotiators, developed & developing countries and the world as a whole, perhaps it is time to change the approach towards tackling climate change. Instead of placing so much hope on global climate deals, we should place more of an emphasis on regional environmental agreements. Although regions do retain the divide between developed and developing countries, the visible effects of climate change can help bridge the divide as countries face the negative consequences of climate change due to inaction. This is not a new idea – within the UNFCCC countries have set up regional coalitions such as African States, Asian States, Eastern European States, Latin American and the Caribbean States, the Western European and Other States and Small Islands Developing States. The current UNFCCC framework convened regional climate weeks for countries to discuss and alter their NDCs. However, these regional frameworks should be extended; these regional groups can look beyond NDCs and place more of an emphasis on regional cooperation and commitments. Instead of relying on the annual COPs, regional groups should take the initiative and promote binding commitments towards climate change. However, this shift of emphasis does still rely heavily on Annex I countries. The obligations that non-Annex I countries take up requires financial and technological transfers from Annex I countries, as well as the Annex I countries themselves to take up binding commitments to reduce emissions and tackle climate change. The UNFCCC and COP would therefore shift their role into more of a focus on how they can help developing countries reach the targets that they have set, as opposed to attempting to reach a global consensus and watering down climate change policies.

As Albert Einstein stated, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. The global approach underlying COP has yielded unsatisfactory results and the divide between developed and developing countries persisted from COP 15 to the recent COP 25. A shift in the global mentality will be challenging and a bold new step in tackling climate change. However, in order to obtain crucial and tangible steps towards tackling climate change, a bold new step might just be what we need.


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