Barry Gardiner MP (Labour, Brent North) is the Leader of the Opposition’s Special Envoy for Climate Change and the Environment
Progress on the UN climate change convention is the perfect illustration of the old joke about the traveller who stops his car to ask directions of a local, only to be told “if I were you I, wouldn’t be starting from here”. The truth about the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is that it has lost its way.

This poses two questions: what went wrong; and how do we get it back together. For those with limited patience here are the two answers: we treated climate change as a technical problem instead of a political one; and we must focus on poverty.

Thirteen years ago things seemed relatively straightforward. The Kyoto Protocol had just been concluded and it was the world’s assumption that we had a legally binding agreement that would reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of industrialised countries by 2012. Europe would reduce its emissions by 8% against 1990 levels, the United States by 7% and Japan by 6%. That was then.

Today the recession in Europe means that the original 15 EU countries do just manage to meet their 8% target; but America is projected to see a 26% rise in emissions over 1990 levels by 2012. Japan’s emissions are 9% above and the Tsunami a few months ago caused a drop in nuclear output and a new dependency on fossil fuels that has seen talk of Japan asking for an exemption from the Kyoto Protocol altogether.

But if developed countries are having problems meeting the protocol’s 2012 targets, the protocol itself is having even bigger problems surviving beyond its first commitment period. The Convention has split into two main groups characterised by the letters KP (for those who want to continue with the Kyoto Protocol) and LCA (for those who do not want Kyoto extended beyond 2012 and who wish to create other forms of Long-term Cooperative Action).

Mutual recrimination sees developing countries insist on preserving the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” whereby those countries with greater historic responsibility for emissions and greater ability to pay should bear the greatest share of the burden; in turn developed countries are fearful their economies will suffer competitive disadvantage and are determined to impose commitments on developing countries to reduce their emissions as well.

Anyone wanting to solve the problem of climate change really would not start from here.


The UNFCCC has treated climate change as a technical problem about mitigation instead of a political one about economic growth. A peripatetic army of civil servants have been engaged to answer questions about business as usual projections; variable base years; sectoral emissions; levels of deforestation; appropriate caps; clean development mechanisms; and independent MRV (Monitoring, Recording and Verification).

But US fear they will be overtaken by an emerging Chinese economy is never going to be resolved by scientific arguments about ocean acidification or the probability of crop failure in Africa.

Similarly India and China, with more than a third of the world’s poor between them, are hardly impressed by exhortations to reduce overall emissions at the cost of economic development. The goal of legally binding commitments under a convention agreement, when seen from this perspective, looks more like a clever straight jacket to shackle economic growth to the benefit of your competitor nations.

The discussions have reinforced this by an overemphasis on mitigation with an ill-conceived priority agenda that runs:

1. Long term two-degree sustainability goal;

2. 450 parts per million CO2 equivalent;

3. A price for carbon;

4. Emissions trading;

5. Clean Development Mechanism;

6. Technology transfer;

7. Adaptation.

The priorities for poorer nations are very much at the bottom of this list. As long as they remain there, the political problem that is climate change will not be resolved.

Negotiators are technicians who have been mandated to discuss textual nuance but must not exceed the narrow limits set by fearful governments. Their negotiating boundaries simply do not tessellate and it is not possible for them to both respect their mandates and reach agreement. Often negotiators suffer from a lack of back up and research capacity. This means that better resourced countries accrue groups of poorer client countries around them who “stick to the line”.

But what is unavailable to the negotiators, above all, is the luxury and latitude of political compromise. It was no accident that when world leaders did turn up at COP 15, they found their negotiators were so far apart it was simply not politically possible to bridge the gaps at Copenhagen.

In fact any objective sociological assessment of this group of people would conclude they are the least likely to achieve a resolution of the problem.

Negotiations are on the whole conducted by government officials who are at least three levels down in seniority, yet they enjoy a lifestyle akin to the peripatetic court of a sultan of old. Five star hotels in Bali, Cancun, Copenhagen, Bonn, feted in Cape Town and Rio… the leaked memo from one negotiator to his colleagues celebrating their wonderful lifestyle summed it up when he asked “don’t you just love The process?”

These are not people whose own interests are best served by concluding an agreement and bringing “The Process” to an end.

Climate change is not a technical problem and it should not be abandoned to technicians. It is a political problem and it requires politicians who, whilst they may seek economic and scientific advice, must fundamentally negotiate what is simply the most complex issue of distributive justice the world has ever faced. It is about justice not only between populations separated across the globe by geography, but between peoples separated in time across the generations.

This political negotiation must focus on poverty. Over the past 300 years rich countries have exploited the physical and biological resources of poor countries with military might and relative impunity. The key difference today is that the convention process gives poor countries the sort of leverage over rich countries that was previously unavailable.

Rich countries require consent and cooperation in their endeavour to combat climate change. They understand that climate change represents a threat to their economic prosperity and they wish to see the problem resolved, but they cannot do it alone; in fact they have proven remarkably unwilling to do it at all. Rich countries would prefer to stop economic growth in the developing world rather than effect change in their own citizens’ quality of life.

But for the first time they cannot simply impose their will and must negotiate to resolve a problem they created and for which the global community is now holding them to account.

Trust has all but gone from the system. The Annex I countries have not only failed on the whole to deliver their Kyoto emission reduction targets, they have also failed to deliver the technology transfer and the financial assistance that were always the essential preconditions of a binding agreement. Yet now these same countries are demanding the developing economies begin to take on commitments of their own. The absurdity would be laughable but the situation is just too grave.

We must come to see climate change as the world’s best opportunity to address poverty, the driver that can deliver three billion people out of economic despair. In Durban the UNFCCC has an opportunity to change the focus of the negotiations from mitigation to adaptation and from the rich world to the poor.

African politicians do not worry about a global sustainability target of two degrees. Their concerns are for economic growth to deliver better healthcare and schooling. They do not connect with climate change through an academic understanding of the threshold effects of 450 parts per million but through seeing desertification destroy their agriculture and ocean acidification destroy the coral reef breeding grounds for their coastal fisheries.

The UNFCCC for the African politician is about delivering economic growth that takes people out of poverty, or it is nothing.

At Durban the rich world’s ‘climate list’ must be turned on its head. Trust must be restored through a real focus on the adaptation needs of poor communities whose very vulnerability to climate change comes from the fact more than 50% of their domestic product resides in the ecosystem services they receive from their country’s natural capital. Technology transfer must be managed so as to provide a real pathway of green growth for communities locked in generations-old technology.

Only politicians can do this because only politicians can decide how much government money can be used to purchase their children’s future.