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The Outrageous Complexity of This Enterprise

This is the seventeenth of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.

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As the Copenhagen talks enter their second week, you may be wondering: how does this work? This is not a dumb question. The UN climate treaty (the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC) lays out a set of fundamental principles to guide the development of an international set of rules for the governance of the global atmosphere. As the signatories – most of the world’s nations– attempt to elaborate these principles into practical terms, they have engaged over the past 17 years in a nearly continuous series of negotiations and workshops held every few months at locations around the world. Like earth’s atmosphere, the process of making this treaty is delicate, complex and chaotic.

This is the 15th annual Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC, the main yearly event on the climate negotiation circuit. It is also the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol, the subsidiary agreement adopted in 1997 by some, but not all, of the UNFCCC parties. Fundamentally, the COP is the official forum for the parties to check back in with one another and see how their common (but different) efforts to reduce climate- damaging emissions are going, decide on new provisions and otherwise maintain the treaty’s letter and spirit. Phrases like “international negotiations” or “gathering of world leaders.” often used to characterize these events, are misleading to the extent that they evoke images of heads of state or senior diplomats seated around a table soberly discussing terms of cooperation between countries with regard to a specific area of activity or policy. Actually, it’s more like a combination academic conference, trade exhibition, cultural exchange event, activist workshop, industry convention, professional networking opportunity, permanent boondoggle, international legislature, traveling circus and small itinerant city (not necessarily in that order).

One could be forgiven for asking how anything important or meaningful can be accomplished in such an environment. The process of turning the input of hundreds of scientists, government officials, technical advisers and experts into the paragraphs that describe the responsibilities of the parties is a feat of extraordinary organizational and bureaucratic ingenuity. It’s quite byzantine to the outside observer, but worth a brief look, as it reflects the outrageous complexity of the enterprise as a whole.

Each COP begins with a draft agenda, reflecting the aspirations of the leadership for specific issues to be addressed and outcomes to be accomplished at the session, as well as the cumulative history of the negotiations and outcomes of past sessions. The specific rules and practices that make up the obligations of the parties are contained in “decisions” and “resolutions” agreed to by the COP. Decisions frequently take the form of directing some gathering or analysis of information by one of the subsidiary bodies, or setting goals for the COP itself to reach a decision on a given issue at a later date. The decisions do not impose new legally binding responsibilities on the parties; they articulate means by which they intend to implement existing ones.

Parties and observers are free to offer draft text for inclusion in COP decisions. In order to incorporate the input of all interested parties, draft decisions are routed through smaller advisory groups designated by the leadership that are assigned to meet and hash out agreement on a given issue. These permanent technical bodies are made of experts nominated by the parties or ad hoc “contact groups.” They include the Subsidiary Body on Technical and Scientific Advice, or SBSTA, and the Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI). Draft decisions are often carried along from one meeting to the next until issues are resolved, requested reports are completed, or other benchmarks are reached.

When a smaller group reaches agreement on a draft decision, it is brought up in plenary for discussion and perhaps, eventually, adoption by the COP. So far, the COP has adopted 254 decisions on subjects ranging from the establishment of a funding mechanism to help poorer countries develop emissions inventories to setting the location of the next meeting.

New legal obligations require passage of an amendment with a three-quarters majority vote. Once adopted, an amendment must be ratified by three quarters of the parties to become legally binding; then, it applies only to the parties that have ratified it. For instance, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted by the UNFCCC COP in 1997, and does contain legally binding targets for those countries that have ratified it. Negotiations continue under the auspices of both the UNFCCC COP and the Kyoto Protocol Conference and Meeting of Parties.

At any given moment, dozens of decisions may be in various stages of consideration, requiring serious multitasking, especially for members of smaller delegations, in order to ensure that they are able to attend to all pertinent issues.

Since this only scratches the surface, the likelihood of reaching an agreed outcome among all countries that will effectively protect the climate can seem increasingly, vanishingly small. On the other hand: the fact that 192 governments have continued to pursue such an agreement over all these years indicates that each country recognizes its importance. I am not personally optimistic about the ability of governments to agree on a course of action that will prevent the worst impacts of climate change– but I don’t think it’s for lack of effort or understanding of the threat. This is human history’s only attempt to create an agreement that will fundamentally affect the economies of every country. It’s a wonder that it exists at all. So whether we rage against the failures of the world’s leaders, or mourn the future, or make a comprehensive suggestion for an alternative approach, we should recognize the scope of what we are asking of ourselves as a global community. It’s hard. Despite its scientific basis, the treaty is an extraordinary political undertaking that requires extraordinary political will.

Kate Brash is assistant director of the Columbia Climate Center.

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