Political will at home is key to climate change talks

With less than one month to go until the return of the UNFCCC Climate negotiations, many are beginning to ask the question: Will the UN climate talks help save the planet or is it time to look elsewhere? Guppi Bola looks ahead to the Cancun conference.

Guppi Bola, who writes regularly on climate issues and helped establish the UK Youth Climate Coalition last year, looks forward to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNCCC) in Cancun later this month

With less than one month to go until the return of the UNFCCC Climate negotiations, many are beginning to ask the question: Will the UN climate talks help save the planet or is it time to look elsewhere?

As the title of Oxfam’s pre-Cancun debate suggests – the fruitless Copenhagen conference left the international environmental community in despair of the UN process. Indeed, climate change may be the greatest threat to mankind, but it has better proven to be the greatest challenge to international political cooperation.

Since the publication of the Copenhagen Accord last December, the only story worth covering has been the continued souring relationship between the world economic heavy-weights; the United States and China.

Reports from the latest meeting in Tianjin were marred by the squabbling over administrative detail and grammatical error. To further set the tone for next month’s talks, a recent statement by the Mexican Foreign Minister attempted to dampen any hopes pinned to a Cancun climate deal.

So what can we anticipate from COP16 if the past three years of post-Kyoto deal breaking has seen more stalemate than success? Can we reasonably expect emerging economies to put environmental protection above economic growth in the hope of untying the deadlock?

What about Todd Stern’s assertions that a lack of US climate legislation will not hinder the international process, how do we ignore the ever growing climate-denying Tea Party Movement who are almost certain to win victory in both the House and the Senate in today’s mid-term elections?

Despite this rather gloomy set of realities, Michael Jacobs, visiting fellow at the Grantham Institute, explored the potential a refocus on Cancun could have on the outcomes of the negotiations. An international framework, he stated, is an essential space for governments to return to when they are ready to set about a legally binding agreement; yet countries will only be encouraged to commit to this if it compliments their national legislation.

A major flaw at the beginning of these negotiations was the NGO’s fixation with emission reductions. What was needed, and what is still needed, is an emphasis on low carbon technology investment which will incentivise and lower the cost of mitigation by nature of its development.

Tom Burke of E3G followed this up by stating that we are now in a situation where we have both the economical and technological capacity to deal with a transition – leaving political will as the key ingredient in making this happen. One of the greatest drivers for political will, added Paul Foote of the Conservative Environment Network (CEN), is the electorate’s interest in the issue. It is doubtless that the UK has struggled to maintain public enthusiasm on climate change over the past year.

Matthew Lockwood from IPPR highlighted how climate change came 12th out of list of 14 top issues in a survey of voters during this summer’s General elections, but also made the assurance that support amongst the UK population was not as badly damaged by the rise in climate scepticism as had first been though

The good news internationally is that since renewable energy investment overtook fossil fuel investment earlier last year, there has been a surge in low-carbon technology across the globe; China recently became the most attractive location for renewable investment; Brazil’s elections saw a breakthrough for the environmental agenda; and India looks to lead the way in green economic development.

Returning to the negotiations – if Cancun is unsuccessful at forging a global agreement, this should not be seen as a failure of the UN process, but a failure of the underlying factors that prevent countries from being ready to engage with the process.

There needs to be a balanced and coherent effort placed on domestic legislation world-wide, supported by bilateral agreements and trusted international diplomacy. And to increase trust in the negotiations, it may be worth developing new organisations such as the International Court for the Environment to deal with the complexities of these relationships.

Whatever happens at Cancun, we are sure to be dealing with more successful forums for action on climate change come South Africa’s COP17 in December 2012.

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