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Doing work within the UN network is inspiring and daunting. Inspiring to see so many people work so hard to forge astonishing compromises like the Paris Accords and daunting to fathom the terminology, the alphabet soup of acronyms, and the failures to face fundamental issues.
To say anything definitive about the UN process normally requires a few dozen numerical references. Here we will be practical and informal.
This is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It came into force on March 21, 1994. It was one of two conventions opened for signature at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. All 198 countries (and entities like the Papal See) of the UN ratified it. This was remarkable. It set lofty goals to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. They sought to nip this problem in the bud agreeing that:
“such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”
The onus to reduce emissions was put primarily on developed countries with a long history of emissions. These were the 38 members of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). https://www.oecd.org/about/document/ratification-oecd-convention.htm. In UNFCCC speak these are referred to as “Annex I” countries. Annex I countries agreed to assist developing countries on climate-related issues.
The UN itself is a Convention. It was based upon the League of Nations that was drafted at the end of WW I. It was the first IGO (Intergovernmental Organization). While most prominent nations joined the League, the US did not (this will be an evolving theme to discuss later).
While the League was created after hostilities were mostly ended in WW I, the UN was created while hostilities were still active after the League failed to prevent WW II. In a real sense, the UN is the League of Nations 2.0, remedying many (but not all) shortcomings of the League. A key change was in the rule of unanimity. In the League, all members had to agree for any substantive resolution to pass. Every member had a veto. The UN Charter reduced the veto to the then five major powers (China, France, Russian Federation, and the United States). The US committed to funding about 50% of the costs and to building the primary for the UN in New York City. The UN was founded on October 24, 1945.
The Confusions of Convention
The common meaning of “convention” is a meeting, often of experts or those sharing a similar interest. Conventions also refer to unwritten rules; how things are done “conventionally” or to reason itself, “conventional wisdom”. Conventions in this sense are not binding.
The UNFCCC (like the UN) is an “international convention”. As such it has come to mean a broad international agreement hopefully enforceable under international law on present and future concerns in a defined area. Legally it is enforced like a “treaty”, but “treaties” normally concern specific states on specific issues, so they are a law that binds only the parties to the treaty. Sadly, there is considerable overlap between “convention” “covenant” “protocol”, “treaty”, “charter” “agreement” and “pact”. All are considered forms of treaties. Language sometimes trumps this. The Paris Accord is actually an “agreement” but in French, it is “accord de Paris”.
Please note that one incentive for hosting a global meeting is the possibility of naming a successful agreement after the host city. This is smart marketing.
Within the UNFCCC terms are less murky. A protocol (like the Montreal Protocol) is a signed specific commitment that will hopefully become part of the larger convention if everyone buys in. The Kyoto Protocol failed, in part, because the US and China did not sign up. The Montreal Protocol (to phase out ozone depleting substances (ODS)), succeeded because there was more buy-in and less cost to implement.
The Framework Convention and a Major Shortcoming of UNFCCC
Conventions that address narrow definable issues such as the Convention against Torture or the Convention against Genocide are less complex and more direct in enforcement. Framework conventions are used for more complex phenomena where the thing to be avoided, the process by which it can be avoided, and the duties of participating states are less clear.
A framework convention is a multi-track process that seeks to define the problem, evaluate the feasibility of remedies, seek consensus on how to implement them, and build voluntary country commitment to do so. Because of this, “Framework Conventions” allow more participation by non-state parties. This is good for folks like us but bad if hundreds of fossil fuel folks are allowed in.
The UNFCCC must also evolve a flexible administrative apparatus to oversee implementation of the final form of the Convention. This favors a process that is very deferential to the parties in order to convince all parties to voluntarily commit. In climate negotiations it is particularly important to get all the parties on board because the Convention is costly to their economies and those who evade commitment can secure significant unfair economical advantage and those who commit could find themselves losing political support at home. This is a tight rope process where high level diplomatic skills are critical.
Comparing UNFCCC to the US Constitutional Convention
The process we undertook beginning in May of 1787 involved only fifty-five delegates and it was convened in private. The UNFCCC has 198 voting members, thousands of Stakeholders and is mostly public and thus subject to intense partisan lobbying. While our US Constitutional convention was quite remarkable, the UNFCCC process is more complex by several orders of magnitude. It is like comparing checkers to three-dimensional chess.
This is why criticism of COP representatives as “failing” is dangerous. Firstly, it is semi miraculous that this amount of progress has been made. Secondly, vested interests that silently oppose UNFCCC want folks to think that we are simply humanly unable to pull this off. A significant part of the corporate community sees climate change as something they can profit from. These organizations face the world as being devoutly “green” while positioning themselves to profit from the staggering reconstruction costs resulting from climate change. Tech companies also profit from our failure as it drives up the willingness to invest in carbon capture, desalination, and atmospheric geoengineering (another fun topic!).
A Structural Shortcoming of UNFCCC: The Vampire Problem
As noted by Bishop Marc, we are given “observer” status. So too are many more fossil fuel (‘Industry” or “Commerce” representatives). At Glasgow there were at least 503 fossil fuel reps lobbying behind faux organizations like the Global Climate Coalition. There were more fossil fuel reps than any single country and they have more capacity to make capital commitments. If you wish to nerd into this, here is nice article that captures some of the Faustian folks who are furtive fixtures at COP. https://climateinvestigations.org/thousands-of-fossil-fuel-observers-attended-climate-negotiations-unfccc-data-2005-2018-cop1-cop24/
At Sharm el Sheik there are over 636 mostly furtive fossil fuel reps. This was compiled by Global Witness and Corporate Accountability. They are skillful and sophisticated, frequently fronting for green organizations. Since they have money to devote to green causes, they have clout. They are given more clout by the fact that Developed Countries are not stepping up to make the promised payments for mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage. As the climate tragedies grow ever worse, desperation rises.
Vampires are strangely like some of the colonists of centuries past who promised to bring civilization, reason, God and all other good things. Today the promise is for “development” “investment”, “prosperity”. The promotion is pseudo evangelical with touting of “lifesaving technologies.”
While some are indeed valuable, many do little to stop carbon expression. Instead, they collectively and skillfully imply that we can invent our way out of the problem. Hope in the “future” of “technology” or “innovation” is one of the more artful ways to avoid making the difficult decisions we must make now about paying for the work that must be done.
The UNFCCC could have kept the fossil fuel agents at arm’s length. It did not have to be this way. In the WHO Framework Convention for the Control of Tobacco (FCTC) the tobacco folks were excluded, and their influence was policed. The language they used then could easily be applied to fossil fuel folks now.
World Health Assembly resolution WHA54.18 noted:
“the tobacco industry has operated for years with the express intention of subverting the role of governments and of WHO in implementing public health policies to combat the tobacco epidemic.”
The Preamble noted that:
“need to be alert to any efforts by the tobacco industry to undermine or subvert tobacco control efforts and the need to be informed of activities of the tobacco industry that have a negative impact on tobacco control efforts”.
Article 5.3 of the Convention requires that:
“in setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law”.
UNFCCC can find a way back by adopting “transparency” requirements forcing “observers” to declare any conflict of interest. A 2017 Guardian article summarizes some of these efforts. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/17/fossil-fuel-lobby-to-declare-interests-at-un-talks. Our group may wish to explore support of this endeavor.
There will be many such lobbyists at COP 27, but this time they will be supported by the African Union due in part to Annex II1, countries failure to deliver promised funds, are now turning back to fossil fuel and nuclear for needed development. https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/african-countries-push-common-energy-position-cop27-2022-10-04/
The UNFCCC COP (Conference of the Parties)
The COP is the decision-making body of the UNFCCC that meets annually. Many years were spent trying to agree to a process by which State Parties could commit to goals. At the Warsaw COP of 2013, they passed a mechanism for nations to commit called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, now called NDC’s (or more formally, INDC’s). A key part of the COP process is getting State parties to “up” their NDC’s.
The failure to commit to sufficient NDC’s is sometimes called the “Gap in Ambition” and the realization of “ambition” is largely through increased NDC commitment.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
The IPCC is the most impressive global scientific collaboration in human history. The Fifth Assessment Report was over 3,000 pages (14,000 peer-reviewed articles) and composed of about 2000 scientists nominated by other scientists. Thankfully, the fossil fuel lobby has not penetrated the IPCC directly. Please spend some time touring their website at https://www.ipcc.ch/. The graphics are great and can be copied for your use.
The easiest overview report is the Synthesis Report which has a 5-10 page Summary for Policymakers and a 30-40 page non-technical summary. The Sixth Assessment is due in late 2022 or early 2023. The Fifth (AR5 Synthesis Report) can be found here. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/syr/. Please consider reading it so you can understand more of the scientific framework and conclusions.
The 6th Assessment report is broken into six domains:
- Working Group I (WGI): The Physical Science
- Working Group II (WGII): Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability
- Working Group III (WGIII): Mitigation of Climate Change
- Special Reports:
- Global Warming of 1.5C
- Climate Change and Land
- The Ocean Cryosphere and Climate
One of the most fascinating aspects of the IPCC is the long-term projections. If you want to nerd out on them. check this out. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/WG1AR5_Chapter12_FINAL.pdf.
The projections begin with geophysical change by region and other variables and then project five Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSP’s). In this manner they brilliantly project the “cost of our choices”, our evasion and our denial. Here are the five.
- SSP1 Sustainability where we gradually get there to the
- SSP2 Business as Usual where we largely continue the past.
- SSP3 Rivalry and Polarization. The rich get richer and the poor poorer, and nationalism is ascendant. Big population growth in poorer countries stimulate more fossil fuel use.
- SSP4 Inequality. Like SSP3 but the faster implementation of low carbon technologies.
- SSP5 Fossil Fuel Development. Like SSP1 but powered by fossil fuel and not by SSP1’s focus on sustainable energy systems.
A sample graphic.
A Trinity of Implementation
While this paper does not summarize the history of the 27 COP meetings, it is fair to say that Paris (COP 21) put it all into the realm of possibility. 193 Countries have ratified or acceded to it. The main holdouts are in MENA (Middle East North Africa) fossil fuel states.
Countries covering 98% of global emissions bound themselves for the first time to categories of action such a limiting warming to 2C and preferably 1.5 C. Countries were required to set their goals for reducing carbon expression and assisting developing countries in their NDC (Nationally Determined Contributios). Each country must transparently detail their report every five years in what is called a “global stocktake”. All were to be provided by 2020. They were not. This complex endeavor is pursued under a new body called the CMA which is the conference of the parties to implement the Paris Agreement. Only those who have ratified it can vote on its implementation. The CMA meets annually at the COP.
While there are almost innumerable actions taken, it may be helpful to consider three. They are
- Mitigation: Reduction of carbon expression
- Adaptation: Adapting systems to the effects of climate change
- Loss and Damage: Compensating parties who have suffered losses that are not remediable.
While dozens of domains like Finance and Technology and Capacity Building and Stocktaking are discussed, the above three are the primary categories of action. The third domain was long resisted by many developed countries for well over 30 years. The agreement in Sharm el Sheikh created a body administered by 24 countries to determine, amongst other things, the form and function of the L & D funding. They are to report back at COP 28 and thereafter. From a bystander perspective, the climate catastrophes in Pakistan and Chad and elsewhere were so immense that they could not be denied. This was great progress, but the need for compensation right now is acute. While we are far from an agreement on a process to pay, we now have a commitment to do so. This is progress.
We share a joint journey. It is not pretty but it is wonderfully human. At base the UNFCCC is a giant mirror compelling us to truly see ourselves and our history of injustices to Creation, the created, and sadly, to ourselves. This problem cannot be ignored, bought off or displaced by disinformation. It is as tenacious in its presence as its opponents are in their diversion and denial. It is a costly and immense gift allowing us to fully face who we are in order to fulfill what we must become.
The UN process is well summarized by Henry Cabot Lodge.
This organization is created to prevent you from going to hell.
It isn’t created to take you to heaven.
1 Annex II is the 24-country subset of Annex I, countries that are on the line to provide financial and technical support to economies in transition (EIT’s) and developing countries.