United Nations Climate Change Conference Changes Little

Published February 1, 2007

Despite predictions from environmental activist groups that climate variance talks would leave the United States out in the cold, nothing much good or bad was accomplished at the 12th Conference of the Parties (COP-12) of the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The convention took place November 6-17 in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Climate change tourists” is how Sharon Looremeta, Kenyan Maasai leader of the environmental group Practical Action, dismissed the diplomats negotiating over what to do about global warming in Nairobi.

“You come here to look at some climate impacts and some poor people suffering, and then climb on your airplanes and head home,” Looremeta bitterly added.

Looremeta was expressing the widespread frustration of many African representatives who were hoping the conference would result in “new mechanisms to help sustainable development in Africa” and “more funds for adaptation.”

No Action Without U.S.

The main reason for such inaction is that most other countries are waiting for the United States to become a player.

Unless the United States jumps on the global warming bandwagon, the Kyoto Protocol signatories will do nothing much more on the issue. In particular, the chief thing other nations are waiting for is the end of President George W. Bush’s administration in January 2009.

No substantive negotiations took place in Nairobi for another reason, too. At the insistence of the United States at the last climate change meeting in Montreal in 2005, the delegates agreed to launch a “dialogue” on climate change that explicitly would not involve any negotiations.

So throughout the conference, environment ministers from around the globe listened to and discussed presentations from various experts on development and on applying markets to climate change.

“The purpose of the dialogue is to take people out of the tensions and concerns of negotiations and allow them to rethink possibilities,” said Howard Bamsey, the dialogue’s co-facilitator, at a November 17 UNFCCC news conference.

Rethinking Core Premises

There was also evidence of a rethinking of core premises.

Halldor Thorgeirsson, deputy executive secretary of the UNFCCC, mentioned that a South African delegate had made an interesting observation. The South African turned the usual formulation of “What can we do to pursue development under the constraints imposed by climate change” on its head to, “What can we do to address climate change under the constraints of the need for development and poverty eradication?”

Poverty eradication is a massive problem. Just how massive was made clear by the vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank, Katherine Sierra, when she pointed out in a speech to the delegates that developing countries need annual investment for electricity supply of $165 billion through 2010, and afterwards investment needs would increase at 3 percent per year.

The real heartbreaker came when Sierra noted the current energy supply investments planned for Africa “will increase poor people’s access to energy in Sub-Saharan Africa from 23 percent today to 47 percent by 2030.” That means half the people in Sub-Saharan Africa still won’t have access to modern energy supplies in 25 years.

Many climate realists find it hard to imagine that climate change projected for the next five decades can wreak as much havoc on the lives of poor Africans as the lack of modern energy supplies does today.

U.S. Open to Change?

Some surprising rethinking may also be taking place among America’s climate negotiators.

The leader of the U.S. delegation at the conference, Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, reportedly said the Bush administration is closely watching how California and nine Northeastern states reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

“We welcome the pursuit of these different strategies and we want to see how they evolve,” Dobriansky told the Associated Press. She didn’t rule out the possibility that the Bush administration could end its resistance to mandatory limits on greenhouse gases.

No Kyoto Extension

Finally, as expected, the COP-12 did not set any new, tough caps on greenhouse gas emissions for the industrialized country signatories of the Kyoto Protocol when it runs out in 2012.

The COP-12 did set a deadline of 2008 for finishing a review of the protocol’s effectiveness, which could pave the way to negotiations over future reduction commitments. However, developing nations will not be pushed to agree to emissions reductions as part of the review process.

Basically, while the Kyoto Protocol signatories wait out the Bush administration, the delegates agreed to agree two years from now.

Apparently, COP-13 will be hosted by Indonesia in Bali.

Ronald Bailey ([email protected]), science correspondent for Reason magazine, submitted this report from Nairobi, Kenya. This article first appeared on the Reason Web site, and is reprinted by permission.