The UNFCCC is an international treaty which aims to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations that lead to global warming.  It was created during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.  Every year, parties to the convention (i.e. countries) meet to review progress, adopt resolutions etc, and also to negotiate updates to the treaty, such as the Kyoto Protocol, which is a legally-binding provision under the Convention, adopted in 1997 entered into force in 2005 and which requires developed countries to limit their greenhouse gas emissions.

After 1997, the next most dramatic Conference of Parties happened two years ago in Copenhagen, but for the opposite reasons.  That COP (the 15th, or COP 15) goes down in history as “Flopenhagen” because world leaders failed to deliver a new global agreement to tackle climate change.  Many lost hope, but many more are continuing the struggle, including us at Greenpeace.

I was privileged to witness the latest UN climate talks was which concluded in Panama last week.  The Panama talks was the last major round of meetings before the next COP, COP 17, which will be held in Durban, South Africa at the end of this year.

In Panama, I joined our Policy Advisor, Zelda Soriano, who is part of a Greenpeace team that monitors the UNFCCC in a global effort to influence country positions so that the world gets the FAB – Fair, Ambitious and Binding – global climate deal it deserves, for the sake of those suffering from climate change as well as for all future generations.

I sat down with Zelda to get a better understanding of this international process, the UNFCCC (or the ‘UN climate negotiations’ as it is usually called).  Here’s what she had to say:

Why are the UN climate negotiations important?

The UNFCCC is extremely important.  Currently it’s the only venue that all countries have wherein they can agree together and work together in order to get a globally agreed solution to climate change.

Without these talks there will be no recognized mechanism that pulls all countries together to work as one toward a common goal.  Climate change is humanity’s biggest global challenge:  it recognizes no borders and affects everyone, rich or poor, those living in cities or coasts or remote mountains – what happens in one country, or in a few countries has consequences in the farthest reaches of the globe.  So this challenge needs a global approach, a unified approach, and the UNFCCC is a way to make this happen.

That all sounds pretty straightforward.

Yes it does, but unfortunately, in reality things are a little bit more complex.  First we need progress in the climate negotiations and that’s what Greenpeace and other civil society groups are monitoring in this process.  We want to ensure that we do get a deal, a solution, that is good for all countries.  We believe the solution to be effective should be Fair, Ambitious and Binding – a FAB deal.

In reality there are countries that are preventing a FAB deal from happening – unfortunately at the expense of the welfare of other countries.

Why would any country want to prevent an outcome that’s good for all?

Well, simply to protect their own interests.  A lot of developed countries are ‘historical emitters’ meaning they are the few who are largely responsible for biggest carbon emissions that are causing the climate crisis and the impacts the whole world is experiencing right now because they’ve been burning coal and oil for fuel for decades and decades before other nations did.

In short, their massive consumption of fossil fuels in the past century has brought them to where they are now, but the trade off is that it’s created a huge global problem – climate change – that’s causing the whole world and in particular many poor nations, who are the least responsible for the problem, to reel under impacts such as extreme weather.

Historical emitters such as the US for example, don’t want be legally bound to reduce emissions – even though it’s the right thing to do seeing as they’re largely responsible for this problem – because (to put it simplistically) they don’t want to lose the edge they’ve always had over other countries.

On the other hand, there are also developing countries, whether major emitters such as China and India, or just small developing states, which don’t want to reduce their emissions for some reasons. One, because they say they are not the ones who are historically responsible for the climate crisis anyway; two, to do so would limit their economic development; and three,  if the historical emitters don’t do it first.

So it’s a deadlock? Or are there solutions?

That’s the reason why the UNFCCC is called climate negotiations, countries are trying to negotiate around their positions.

At present though, the most progressive countries in the talk are developing nations who are not historical emitters.  So far countries like India, China, Indonesia, and Singapore, have given commitments to reduce emissions even if they’re not obligated to.  What the world is watching out for is similar commitments from developed countries to move the talks forward.

There are other issues, such as developed countries making climate change adaptation and mitigation funds available to help developing nations, because again they are largely responsible for this problem that everyone is experiencing and which is making poorer countries who do not have the means to cope, suffer.

What are the talks looking like now?  What do we expect from the upcoming Conference of Parties in Durban?

Compared to previous meetings, the negotiations in Panama concluded with some progress. Climate finance was to be put on the political agenda of the ministers and heads of states attending the COP in Durban.

It was also a little positive surprise that the discussions about whether to negotiate a legally binding agreement to tie down the big emitters not covered by the Kyoto Protocol (inc. US, China, India) actually didn´t blow up, but instead progressed in laying out the options for ministers to decide on in Durban. Of course, not having a legally binding agreement is still a very clear option on the list, so in that sense, we haven´t achieved anything yet.

Also, the negotiators managed to finish a substantial part of the technical work needed to operationalize the new Green Climate Fund, the Technology Mechanism, the Adaptation Committee etc. So now, at least there are no technical - only political - arguments for not doing so.

The work goes on then….

Yes.  We’ll continue to monitor the talks and hold countries responsible.  At the same time, we’re also calling on developing countries, for example the ASEAN countries, to continue with their active role and contribution in the negotiations. A common position of these 10 countries for a FAB deal is of course their best contribution to this negotiation process.