What future for climate talks after Bush meeting?

Posted: 22 August 2007

Author: Martin Khor

President George Bush has invited a number of 'major economies' and the United Nations to a meeting in the United States in September to develop a framework on climate change. Although the meeting aims to complement the global agreement under the UN, the nature and timing of the meeting opens questions as to whether the US initiative will be a building block or stumbling block to the UN process, says Martin Khor.

The meeting will be held ln 27-28 September in Washington, just three days after a 'high-level event' at the United Nations on climate change to which heads of states and governments have been invited by the UN Secretary-General.

The clash of the two events is the latest sign that the US President is planning to establish global framework for dealing with climate change that could be inside or outside of the UN system. An invitation letter for the 'Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change' was sent by Bush to leaders of other countries on 2 August. Invited are 11 representatives of developed countries (including the European Commission) and 7 representatives of developing countries, plus the United Nations. The letter said that Bush will speak at the meeting, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will chair it. Although the invitation letter implies that the meeting aims to contribute to a global agreement under the United Nations, the nature and timing of the meeting opens questions as to whether the US initiative will be a building block or stumbling block to the delicate UN process.#

Next step for Kyoto

At present, the multilateral agreements on climate change come under the UN, namely the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol that is under the UNFCCC umbrella. The Kyoto Protocol contains commitments by developed countries (known as Annex I countries) to reduce their Greenhouse Gas emissions by 2012 by certain percentages (as compared to 1990 levels), with each country allocated different percentages. Developing countries are not subjected to binding quantitative reduction targets. As the present phase of the Kyoto commitments will be ending in 2012, most countries have agreed to launch negotiations for a new phase of emission-reduction commitments (for the post-2012 period) at the Bali meetings of the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol this December. The US is a member of the UNFCCC, but has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Bush has challenged the rationale of the Protocol's differentiated approach to reduction commitments, and insisted that the US would only join an agreement in which developing countries that are major emitters of Greenhouse Gases are also obliged to reduce their emissions.

Pressure for joint target In the run-up to the G8 Summit in Germany in June, the US was under pressure from the European leaders to commit to a joint target for reducing G8 countries' emissions. To divert from criticisms, Bush on the eve of the Summit announced that he would launch a US initiative for a global framework, starting with a meeting of 15 top emitting countries before the end of the year. There are fears that the US is challenging the UN process by starting its own process, with principles that may be different from what may be achieved at the UNFCCC. A major issue will be whether developing countries, or some of them, should be asked to commit to quantitative targets for emission reduction and if so, on what basis the developing countries are to be selected. Countries with large populations, like China and India, are of the view that it is unfair for them to be subjected to binding targets, because their levels of emission per capita are still far below the levels of the developed countries, although their absolute total emissions may be large due to their population size. The UN General Assembly held its first 'thematic dialogue' on the climate change issue earlier this month (August 2007), and it served a useful function of highlighting the problem and also enabling the countries to voice their current positions. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon announced that he was organising a high-level event on 24 September on the eve of the General Assembly's main meeting to which many heads of government traditionally attend.

Building blocks for Bali Observers were of the view that the UN was positioning itself to continue as the venue for negotiating international agreements relating to climate change, and that the General Assembly dialogue as well as the 24 September event were planned as important building blocks to the Bali conference in December. The US delegation mentioned the Bush initiative for a meeting of major economies, but did not mention the dates nor that the invitations were already on the way. On 3 August (a day after the UN General Assembly dialogue ended), news agencies reported that a senior US administration official had announced that Bush was organising a climate change conference for 27-28 September in Washington. A Reuters report quoted the official as saying that the meeting was "intended to pave the way for agreement by the end of 2008 on a long-term goal to cut greenhouse emissions".

Help or hindrance? The Financial Times on 4 August reported that Bush had not yet confirmed whether he will attend the UN climate change meeting on 24 September. The key question now is whether the Washington meeting is intended by the US to be an input into the UN process, or as a competitor and possible alternative to it. The letter of invitation by Bush states that the US wants to collaborate with other major economies to agree on a detailed contribution for a new global framework by the end of 2008, which would contribute to a global agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change by 2009. This implies that the Bush initiative seeks to stay within the UN context. However, the US administration is likely to hold on to its position that it cannot join a global agreement on climate change that excludes 'major' developing countries from binding commitments that developed countries are to undertake. This is likely to face resistance from many of the developing countries that are invited to Washington. At the recent General Assembly dialogue, China, India and Brazil made clear their view that developing countries should not be required to undertake binding reduction commitments in a post-2012 agreement, although they could contribute through national plans aimed at tackling climate change. The developing countries as a group have also made clear that they consider the UN process to be the proper and legitimate one, and that any other processes must fit into its multilateral framework. The G77 and China in its statement to the General Assembly dialogue emphasised that "any special events or initiatives, whether individual, national, regional or multilateral, should complement ongoing negotiations under the UNFCCC, which serves as the multilateral agreed structure within which the international community agreed to address the challenges of Climate Change." Martin Khor is the Director of the Third World Network.

This article is reproduced with permission from South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) Issue #6308 7 August 2007 in co-operation with Third World Network Features. See more features from the Third World Network here