Do you know your COP IQ?

– The following has been re-posted from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies official student delegation blog, found here

The COP17 events kicked into high gear at the welcome party at City Hall last night (seriously, the African dancers were doing these super high kicks as part of their routine, very impressive).  UNFCCC Secretariat Christiana Figueres and other dignitaries also got a chance to boogie down on stage for climate change – a nice albeit unexpected end to the evening.

Now on to serious business.

I thought that it would be helpful to write a post about “thought-lenses” to utilize as you try to understand why and how the COP process is developing in Durban.  These are small points that will hopefully aid you in “seeing the picture on the box”  This represents a stripped-down synthesis of key take-away points that I have gathered over the past few months from guest lecturers, UN documents, blogs, my own research, etc.

Many people have already said that Durban will be a flop.  Why?

  • There is little prospect for a single, legally binding agreement to take place.
  • Confidence in the process is low, and trust between the negotiating parties is low.
  • The KP (Kyoto Protocol) commitment period is set to expire at the end of this year, and a second commitment period is NOT likely.


The two big political issues in Durban are the GCF (Green Climate Fund) and the post-2012 arrangements.  Check out this World Bank blog post for more details.


The COPs (Conference of the Parties) represent small, incremental progress in the global climate policy regime.  Don’t hold your breath for any big, flashy outcomes – they won’t come.  Furthermore, “leapfrogging” isn’t a sign of real, sustainable progress.


The UNFCCC process is consensus-based, making it a large, slow and complicated process with a very extensive documentation history.


The UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) system works based on coalitions, blocks of countries grouped based on similar economic development statuses, ie: LDC (Least Developed Countries), BASIC (Brasil, South Africa, India, China).  These blocks help to simplify the negotiation processes, since it would be extremely difficult for 100+ countries to independently negotiate their interests, and many lack the resources and capacity to do so.   Keep in mind that the counties in each block should not be thought of as a homogeneous group – in fact part of the problem with the UNFCCC framework is that countries don’t fit into neatly defined categories.  For example, is China a developing or developed country?  With an economy and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions that rival the United States they could be considered developed, but the country as a whole is still developing.


There is a general consensus among countries about the fact that climate change is real, and that collective action is necessary to mitigate, adapt and prevent (as best we can) the impending effects.  However, what is not agreed upon is:

  • What the appropriate action is or should be.
  • Who should act first – the developed countries like the US that have enjoyed the social and economic benefits of development (code for, the ones who emitted all that carbon) or the developing counties like China and Brasil that are coming on line with huge emissions number?
  • Who should pay for it?
  • What constitutes action that is aggressive and swift enough to seriously address climate change, and who gets to define that?


There are two main groups of countries that are party to the Convention:

“Annex I countries” – defined as countries that were part of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), or former Russian Federation EIT (economies in transition) in 1992)

“Non-Annex I countries”, mainly consisting of developing countries.

The big problem:  these designations are no longer accurate groupings for countries that are party to the Convention.  Furthermore, since a country’s commitments to take action on climate change is  linked to their annex status, there is uneven responsibility between a developed annex I country with a high GHG emission rate, and a developing non-annex I country with a high GHG emission rate.  The latter is not required to take action.  This is at the heart of the stalemate with the Kyoto Protocol.  In 1992, developed countries made up the lion’s share of GHG emissions, but now the majority is coming from developing countries, hence the dilemma.


Text negotiations are complicated, and they are taking place behind the scenes throughout the COP.  By behind the scenes, I mean that I can’t waltz into a nice, air-conditioned observer room and watch delegates fight it out over the placement of a comma in the document.  Literally, they fight over commas.  The joys of conference diplomacy.


We are living in a multi-polar world, meaning that there is more than one center of power with influence in the international system.  This adds an additional layer of complexity to a climate change regime based on consensus.  Often this leads to “lowest common denominator” agreements that are inadequate for addressing climate change.


Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people are in the middle-developed countries, NOT in the poorest countries.  Think about how poverty is used as a rationale for allowing development at the expense of the environment, and how economic development and poverty are unevenly correlated.

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