25 September 2014: Was Ban Ki-moon’s UN climate summit just a talking shop?

On Sunday I went, with my daughter, sister, niece and nephew, on the climate march in London. On Tuesday I watched Ed Miliband’s party conference speech, in which he said that when he thinks about his children’s future he thinks about the need to control climate change. (Glad he remembered to say this bit…). Then I watched David Cameron’s speech at the UN climate summit. I’m biased – I rejoined the Labour Party when Ed was elected leader, partly because he was a good Energy and Climate secretary – but I felt that Ed spoke with more passion and commitment about climate change than Cameron did. The text of the prime ministers speech, circulated in advance, included a line about ending coal use in the UK, but this was cut from the delivered speech, due to time constraints. Shame: it would have been more radical and more important than anything that was left in.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had said that his invitation to world leaders was intended to inject momentum into international climate negotiations, which are supposed to reach an agreement in Paris in December 2015. These are UN negotiations, so Ban Ki-moon had to stress their importance: that’s part of his job description. But UN climate negotiations are unlikely to reach agreement, because any one country can veto a deal. And targets under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), even if they are called “legally-binding”, are not enforceable. My view, as I argued in last week’s CER publication (see http://www.cer.org.uk/publications/archive/policy-brief/2014/international-climate-negotiations-should-focus-money-not-tar ) is that climate diplomacy should focus on finance, not targets. This week’s summit did lead to some progress on money, though not nearly enough:

  • Norway said that it will contribute $500 million per year until 2020 to combat climate change. Much of this will go to forest protection.
  • French President Hollande said that France will commit $1 billion to the Green Climate Fund over the next few years.
  • Switzerland is “considering” at least a $100 million contribution to the Green Climate Fund.
  • Luxembourg committed $5 million to the Green Climate Fund
  • Estonia committed €3 million to adaptation in low-lying states.
  • China said it would give $6million to help poor countries with climate programmes.

There were also several re-announcements of money already allocated, including:

  • €14 billion from the EU. Commission President Barroso presented this as new, but it’s in the EU’s agreed 2014-2020 Multiannual Financial Framework, so isn’t new.
  • £4 billion from the UK. This is in the agreed UK aid budget.
  • €750 million from Germany. The money would be additional to Germany’s existing aid budget, but the government had announced in several times previously.

As expected, due to the forthcoming mid-term elections, US president Obama didn’t offer any money. The US will probably announce what it will give at the UNFCCC meeting in Lima at the end of this year. Obama gave a great speech, as he always does, and promised to work with China to control climate change. The Chinese promise of $6 million for international climate projects is not much money, but is a significant and welcome turning point. The Chinese government had always argued – correctly – that Europe, North America and Australia got rich by burning fossil fuels, so we should carry the cost of adaptating to a changed climate and the low-carbon transition. I think that we should pay most of the cost, because of our responsibility for historic emissions, but that today’s big emitters should also contribute. China is by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases today, so a Chinese contribution is essential, for financial and political reasons.

The UN summit was a talking shop. But talking is not bad. It leads to more understanding and more co-operation. More importantly, it puts political pressure on the talkers. It is possible that Hollande, Merkel (who didn’t attend this week’s summit, but will almost certainly be at the Paris summit next year), Barroso and Cameron would have allocated money to international climate programmes out of ethical commitment. But not very likely. So we should thank Ban Ki-moon for holding this summit. Whether or not it has given greater momentum to the UNFCCC negotiations, is has given impetus to climate finance discussions. And money is more important than targets.





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