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Why UN climate talks are doomed to fail

I’m an ex-bureaucrat, or ‘public service refugee’ as I sometimes like to call it. I spent the first three months of my job in the Australian Federal Government writing responses to letters from the public. Yes, I hate to burst that bubble, but if you ever get a letter back from a minister, they have neither read your letter nor written the response – all of that was delegated to minions like me.

I would get the letter, and then search through a large word document of pre-approved paragraphs full of platitudes that were certain to make it through the senior executive approval process and offend no-one. After pasting together enough of those to make a letter assuring the author that we cared about their chosen issue, the letter would then have to be approved by a team leader, a director and a branch head at a minimum, before being signed and mailed out.

What does any of this have to do with UN climate talks in Warsaw this week? Well, the above experience is how a bureaucracy runs, and while it’s important to have checks and balances in processes and move incrementally, this is exactly why the UN climate talks as they are now are doomed to fail.

Anything that may happen this week or next week in Warsaw has already been decided on. The negotiators and delegates who have been sent by their representative countries will have had their negotiating positions and the amount of negotiating ‘wiggle room’ that they have approved by several levels of senior government officials months ago. The delegates will have spent the past few months working hard on speaking with all the relevant groups in their own country to work out what the appropriate position to take to the meeting is, and any changes in position or goals will have been hashed out behind the scenes already.

The negotiators then head to the next COP or CMP for the UNFCCC with their pre-approved positions and follow the script, because speaking out of line at an international conference would definitely be a ‘career limiting move’. That’s probably why the impassioned calls for real action on climate change come from smaller less powerful countries in the scheme of international negotiations (like this week’s excellent speech by the delegate from the Philippines).

But what does that have to do with making progress on a climate change agreement? Can’t governments send negotiators with permission to agree to ambitious reduction targets?

They could, but they’re not. Most countries do not send the people to the UN negotiations who are the final decision makers. The people there are not allowed to agree on a new ambitious target that gets proposed (no matter how good it is) because they’d need permission from senior executives and ministers back home.

UN talks are designed to be incremental things – that’s what they’re good at. But while that was part of the success of the Montreal Protocol, they are the reasons the process will fail for climate change.

The Montreal Protocol was successful because CFCs were a small part of the economy and industry eventually got on board. For climate change, burning carbon is currently still central to the global economy and fossil fuel companies are fighting tooth and nail to deny there’s any problem.

Because carbon is still central to the world’s economies the decisions to price and limit carbon pollution in a meaningful way cannot be made by delegates – these are decisions that can best be taken at the national, state/regional and city level.

That’s where decisions on fuel standards, electrical grids, zero waste policies, energy efficient buildings, mass transit, air pollution and carbon pricing can be taken, tracked and enforced. Trying to enforce these or even agree on these kinds of decisions at an international level doesn’t work.

Eventually, the UNFCCC may come up with an internationally agreed price on carbon and a funding mechanism for adaptation. But they’ll probably be following the pack once a price on carbon has been established through nations, regional agreements and cities taking the lead and creating the market incentive for others to join.

The UN talks and inches forward – that’s the way it works. However it’s not going to work for climate change because the wrong decision makers are there and it’s implausible to try and build universal mitigation strategies. So let them talk- in the mean time, cities, regions, states and countries are working out how to get it done. 

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