PARIS – The United Nations’ General Assembly is the world’s only body in which all countries vote, with majority rule prevailing. There is no unanimity requirement or veto in the General Assembly, which might well be why it has not been called upon in the effort to fight climate change. Yet the General Assembly is the only place where obstruction by major countries – for example, by China and the United States at December’s global climate talks in Copenhagen – can be bypassed.
Of course, the UN has played a leading role on climate change before now. A “Conference of Parties” (COP) has met almost every year since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. These meetings are often technical and the discussions are usually among ambassadors. But sometimes their preparatory work requires decisions to be taken at the ministerial level, or even by heads of state or government. This was the case in Kyoto in 1997, and again in Copenhagen at COP15.
One might recall that many delegations arrived in Kyoto resignedly willing to accept the idea of a tax on greenhouse-gas emissions, or at least on carbon dioxide, the most commonly encountered greenhouse gas. The US delegation, dispatched by a government intent on reducing state intervention in the economy, declared itself vehemently opposed to the idea.
The US delegation suggested a totally different scheme from the one being discussed. In the US scheme, the volume of emissions would be subject to permits or quotas, which could be traded in a market established for that purpose.
In the end, that scheme was chosen in Kyoto with the hope that the US, which had proposed it, would then ratify it. China and India were absent at the time, and Russia was hostile to the idea. But the US refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
The European Union was the only group of nations that seriously considered implementing it. A European quota system, limited to electricity producers and materials manufacturers, the two major sources of emissions, has been in place since 2005.
The COP15 conference in Copenhagen was supposed to forge a successor treaty that would take effect when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. But four days of discussion among world leaders resulted in a fiasco. A four-page document was vaguely approved by acclamation but not submitted to a vote. It expressed the hope that international action will aim at limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius in the course of the twenty-first century, but it says nothing about how to achieve this – no commitments on the quantity of emissions, and no system for global measurement or supervision.
Such a failure is extremely harmful. With no government commitments, there can be no attempt to limit carbon emissions effectively, which implies that when the world does begin to take action, it will be that much more difficult to slow the pace of climate change and mitigate its effects. Moreover, Europe has been left uncertain about its own system of quotas, which has not functioned particularly well in the first place.
More than half of the 43 members of the Association of Small Island States believe that the decision to do nothing, to let ocean waters rise, can be considered tantamount to approval of murder. The smallest among them, Tuvalu, with 11,000 inhabitants, is already searching for a place to evacuate its citizens when their island is submerged. More than half of Bangladesh’s territory, home to 100 million inhabitants, is threatened by flooding, as is the Netherlands, with 16 million people, for a quarter of its territory.
Most of the potential climate refugees will end up in huge zones of increasing dryness – the Middle East, the Mediterranean region, central China, and the US. Some predict that this migration will take place as soon as the second half of this century.
Given the scale of the looming catastrophe, the world cannot afford to leave things as they are. Of course, the process has not stopped. Conferences on climate change will still be held. But the next one will probably lead to a serious settling of scores. Indeed, people and governments need to express their anger at the fact that no binding agreement was reached in Copenhagen, despite the willingness of many of those who were present.
Fortunately, enough was accomplished in Copenhagen to re-boot the process. But that re-boot must start now, and the UN, specifically the General Assembly, is the place to begin. Many commentators have condemned the UN for the failure in Copenhagen. But that is a misreading of what happened. The UN was only the tour operator in Copenhagen. It supplied logistics, interpreters, and an address book. Its steering bodies did not function, because they were not called upon during the talks.
It is thus time to make real use of the UN, to call upon the General Assembly to take the lead. The UN was not responsible for the failure in Copenhagen, and it should not act as if it was. It must now use its power as the world’s parliament to overcome the obstructions of the few.