“Thirty years later, we have not yet solved the problem.”
I begin with this article a series on the global climate negotiations. At this moment, since last Sunday (October 31) and up to Friday (November 12) next week, national leaders, government officials and diplomats, and representatives of stakeholders from indigenous peoples, environmental and conservation groups, women, the private sector, local governments, etc are converging in Glasgow, Scotland to attend the 26th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). I am not attending but I have a team from Manila Observatory who are in Glasgow now.
As an academic and lawyer, I have participated in these UNFCCC negotiations since the 1990s. I have moved from one role to another in the last three decades – as an activist, as a negotiator for a developing country, as a high government official in charge of setting up and running the early climate institutions of the Philippines, as a facilitator of and active negotiator on climate, forest and land use, biodiversity, and human rights issues in the negotiations from Kyoto to Paris (I was chair of the LULUCF negotiations in Kyoto, the REDD-plus facilitator in Copenhagen and Durban, and facilitated the inclusion of human rights, biodiversity, and climate justice principles in Paris), as an implementor of climate mitigation and adaptation programs on the ground, and as a researcher on climate and related issues trying to think through complex issues and propose solutions, as a teacher and mentor of many developing country professionals working on this subject, as a legal and policy expert working with international institutions on how to move forward on this most serious of sustainable development challenges, and as an early advocate of climate justice as a way of framing engagement in the climate issue.
I started following the climate change negotiations in 1990 during the Second World Climate Conference which called for the negotiation of a climate change treaty. That same year, in December 1990, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) launched the negotiation process that would a year and a half later, in May 1992, produce the UNFCCC. The UNGA decided to establish “a single intergovernmental negotiating process under the auspices of the General Assembly, supported by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization, for the preparation by an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) of an effective framework convention on climate change.”
Among others, it would take into account the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was established in 1989 following the First World Conference on Climate Change and issued its First Assessment Report (FAR) in 1990. The FAR would become the scientific basis of the UNFCCC. This is an important detail to highlight – how the politics followed the science in the early years, a practice that will later be questioned by skeptics seeking to derail progress in the issue.
In 1991, I started my graduate legal studies in Yale Law School, in New Haven, Connecticut in the United States and started following the negotiation process being conducted in the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. At that time, like many from the South, I framed the climate issue as principally from a North-South perspective and from an exclusively mitigation focus – early and substantial reduction by developed countries of their greenhouse gas emissions. Many of us thought then that this was enough to avert a climate crisis: If only developed country governments (those listed I Annex I of the UNFCCC) did their part, if only developed country societies were willing to make the necessary sacrifices, and if only we could have a legally binding agreement that would impose what we later called Quantified Emission Limitation and Reduction Obligations (QUELROS) on developed countries.
This was in May 1992, just before the Earth Summit convened in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where the UNFCCC was opened for signature.
Thirty years later, we have not yet solved the problem; instead, climate change has escalated into a global crisis, an emergency of immense proportions. It seems instead that we have retrogressed, certainly made little progress. That is why I have described these negotiations as a “forward, backward, forward” process.
The Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015 and which I helped negotiate for the Philippines, is our best chance to finally address the climate challenge. Over the last 30 years, efforts in implementing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol can inform the way forward. This is why I have co-authored with colleagues from the World Resources Institute (WRI) a paper that does this,
Our paper, which can be downloaded at the WRI website, describes an implementation architecture established under the UN climate regime to advance ambitious climate action and reviews the architecture’s context under the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol. We suggest that implementation of the Paris Agreement will require a whole-of-society approach built around an effective implementation architecture. To continue to build a successful implementation architecture, the UN climate regime needs to leverage a broader range of fora, organizations, and stakeholders.
This series will be based on this paper and on my own personal reflections as I participated in the process.
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