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The UN to the Rescue on Climate Change

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.