The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which entered into force in 1994, is the international accord on climate change and its Kyoto Protocol is currently the world's only mechanism for tackling the problem at the global level. The question is, after 10 years are we getting anywhere? Certainly no expert on international negotiations, I decided to try and answer the question:
What do we have to show for a decade of international action on Climate Change? 

Last December, Buenos Aires hosted the tenth Conference of the Parties (COP-10) to the UNFCCC. Following Russia's decision last November to ratify the Kyoto protocol, COP-10 was the last COP before the Protocol enters into force on 16th February 2005. It was billed as an opportunity to review the progress made since the convention was formed and to wrap up unfinished business from earlier rounds of negotiation. This two-week extravaganza included high-level plenary sessions and intense rounds of political negotiation. It seemed like a good place for me to start.

Mitigation and Adaptation
My climate change primer tells me that two important concepts in climate change are 'mitigation' and 'adaptation'. Mitigation is all about reducing the levels of green house gasses in the atmosphere and includes the usual stuff of reducing dependence on fossil fuels and halting or reversing deforestation. It also includes techno-fixes such as sequestration, seeding the oceans and any number of wacky schemes. Adaptation is about dealing with the impacts of climate change, for example by building sea defences, improving emergency planning for extreme weather, long term water resource management.

I was surprised to find out that COP-10 was the first COP in which adaptation was given equal weight as to mitigation. I assume that as the evidence and inevitability of climate change mounts, the importance of adaptation is growing clearer, irrespective of any mitigation efforts.

Key negotiations took place on the 'Adaptation Package'. This boils down to 'what are the rich countries going to do for the poor ones?' Not surprisingly, everything comes down to political muscle. On the one hand oil-rich less developed countries (LDCs) were able to gain concessions relating to measures to soften the economic impacts of a world moving away from fossil fuels. On the other hand, poorer LDCs made little headway in their demands that access to adaptation money be made less tortuous. Eventually, an agreement was reached and the political process inched forward.

On the mitigation side, there was debate about what happens 'post-2012,' after the first commitment period of the Kyoto protocol. All parties to the protocol are committed to addressing this issue by the end of 2005. The EU are the traditional champions (though even here there are growing signs of timidity). Contrast this with the US attitude: not bound to the Kyoto commitment, they refused point blank to discuss post-2012 issues. The impasse was breached only at the very last minute, and a seminar is now planned for 2005, to continue the debate. Although it was agreed explicitly that the seminar will not 'open negotiations to new commitments', observers point out that this does not preclude 'the initiation of such discussions on the basis of the seminar's outcomes.' I guess that counts as another inch.

Climate scepticism aside, a major reason why the US refuses to engage with the international process is its demand that responsibility for mitigation should fall to all countries not just the richer ones. In particular they have their eyes on the two industrial powerhouses of India and China.

The EU stance is that it is the responsibility of the developed countries to prove that mitigation is possible by putting their our own house in order first, while supporting less developed countries, with their own equal but differentiated responsibilities. Little common ground exists. The transatlantic rift will be revisited in 2005, particularly since Tony Blair has pledged to make climate change one of two priorities for his G8 presidency.

It is sobering to note that, as our understanding of climate change increases and the magnitude of the threat becomes clear, the window of opportunity for the West to show global leadership gets smaller and smaller. If we leave it much longer, we will have no choice but to follow the US line and consider emissions equally wherever they are produced.

So, back to the original question: are we getting anywhere? My truthful answer is that I’m still not sure. The UNFCCC is a horribly complex and involved process. Inch by inch it moves forward, but we are surely running out of time.

My biggest hope is that the developed countries can make good their commitments under the first period of the Kyoto protocol and in doing so demonstrate that transition towards a carbon-free world is both feasible and relatively painless. Combining this proof of principle with the ever-mounting environmental impacts might just catalyse the international community to turn those inches into feet and feet into miles.

Ref: COP-10 final, Earth Negotiations Bulletin, 12 (260),

Take Action

Please write and ask your MP to support Early Day Motion (EDM) 176 on Renewable Heat. The Bill would oblige coal, gas and oil suppliers to source more renewable heat energy. This would have effect of: cutting the amount of climate changing greenhouse gases released by energy used for heating (currently around a third of the UK's total emissions); making the UK a world leader in renewable heat technologies; helping to tackle fuel poverty in remote areas of the UK; and providing new markets for the farming and forestry industry.

If your MP replies saying he/she doesn't sign EDMs, ask them to write to Margaret Beckett or Patricia Hewitt expressing their support. To take this action on-line, visit