The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

In Climate Change Negotiations, Less Is More

For a “once-in-a-generation opportunity”, the Rio+20 Conference suffers from a lack of expectations. The anticipated non-attendance of prominent heads of state, vague conference themes and painfully slow pace of negotiations have contributed to the prevalent view that most positive outcomes will emerge outside of state-level delegations. There is tacit acceptance that little progress will be made on climate change; hence the increased emphasis on sustainable development. This sacrifices both ambition and the possibility of meaningful consensus.

Despite strengthening evidence on the perils of climate change and benefits from sustainable development, achieving international consensus on specific goals has been difficult. An extremely comprehensive document – Agenda 21 – resulted from Rio ’92. However, the UNFCCC and the Convention on Biological Diversity, specific legal instruments aimed at achieving the Agenda 21 aspirations, have largely failed to do so. Rio+20, by aiming for another comprehensive document, is re-treading a well-worn path.

Avoiding difficult fracture points on climate change is not a solution if it results in another weak consensus. A whole chapter of Agenda 21 is devoted to addressing climate change, making it an important part of the sustainable development paradigm. The enormous benefits of binding international agreements are crucial to ensure political, private sector and civil society commitment to mitigating climate change. Considering the limited results achieved at recent Conferences of the Parties to the UNFCCC, a new approach is needed to change the form, without changing the substance, of climate change negotiation. Rio+20 should be the laboratory to test that new approach.

There are positive signs. Energy use – the dominant cause of climate change – is a Critical Issue at Rio+20. The conference, through the concept of green economy, emphasises energy efficiency over emission reduction. The voluntary commitments made by prominent developing economies at Copenhagen and Cancun were made in terms of carbon intensity, indicating that energy efficiency would be a far more acceptable parameter in climate change discussions. Apart from supply-side management, controlling fossil fuel consumption is recognised, even by industry, as necessary. Renewable energy requires the restructuring of energy infrastructure, creating negotiating roadblocks. Negotiating better energy utilisation within carbon-committed economies is more likely to yield results.

Rio+20 has highlighted low-carbon transport as a focus area. This focus on a particular sector of an economy is extremely important since it replaces the holistic aspirations of climate change negotiations with an incremental alternative. The benefits of such an approach include increased participation in negotiations, more flexibility and clarity in defining mitigation parameters, better monitoring of target realization, the space to focus on critical sectors and the reduction of sector-based protectionism. It must be extended to identify other sectors which are suited to sector-specific agreements.

Rio+20 should be used as an opportunity to create focused but binding commitments on nations (as the UNEP recommended). In the ever-broadening areas of climate change and sustainable development, the devil remains in the details. A measured approach to resolving some of those details would make this conference as worthwhile as its landmark predecessor.

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