Ban Ki-Moon’s UN climate summit

So, what to make of the UN Secretary-General’s high level event on climate change in New York earlier this week? First, a few quick observations in no particular order:

  • Heavyweight proposal of the day: Angela Merkel stepped up her call for future climate policy to be based on the principle of national emissions entitlements converging towards equal per capita levels, calling for this approach not only at the climate summit but in a subsequent speech to the entire UN General Assembly too.
  • Intriguing leftfield idea of the day: Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa offered to leave 920 million barrels of oil in the ground, to avoid the emissions that would result from burning it. And in return: “Ecuador requests to the humanity a small contribution of 5 dollars per barrel” – $4.6 billion, in other words. By a very rough reckoning, that works out at a little over $10 per tonne of CO2 of emissions reduction – when current market prices for crude are $80 a barrel. Someone draw up a contract, quick.
  • Speaker of the day: Bharrat Jagdeo of Guyana, who strode up the podium and spoke brilliantly, without notes, making eye contact with everyone in the room. And everyone sat up and took notice. Especially good was the moment when Jagdeo singled out EC President Barroso and with exquisite politeness, kicked him round the room for Brussels’ cack-handed reform of the EU Sugar Protocol. Just goes to show: oratorical skills still count. Especially at UN summits where everyone else mumbles through their script.
  • Charmer of the day: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Anyone who begins their speech to the UN General Assembly by asking a room full of heads of state to “give a big hand” to his wife has considerable panache (video here).

Here‘s the SG’s full summary document, which makes explicit reference to limiting warming to two degrees C – which is excellent – and to the need to halve emissions by 2050. The latter is a bit odd, given that in its fourth assessment report, the IPCC’s policy working groupmakes clear that as far as limiting warming to between 2 and 2.4 degrees is concerned, a global cut of 50 per cent by 2050 is the bare minimum (the range the IPCC uses is between 50 and 85 per cent by 2050); but still, there’s time to correct this confusion before the Bali summit in December.

What to make of the summit overall?

First, this was a big win for Ban Ki-Moon. He garnered a great tally of heads of state and heads of government, and successfully raised the stakes on climate change ahead of Bali – which was the central objective in holding this summit.

Second, virtually all speeches made concurred on the level of urgency on tackling climate change, and that too is significant progress.

Third, the nascent battle between a future based on targets and timetables versus a future of voluntary action and technology partnerships is starting to get intense. Merkel is emerging as the most articulate and clear-sighted proponent of the former. But to see what she’s up against, see the speeches made by Condi Rice and – especially – Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer. The latter set out seven key principles for an “equitable and effective post-2012 international climate change arrangement”, as follows – with words like “binding” and “targets” notable by their absence (the word “aspirational”, on the other hand, appeared in Downer’s speech three times):

  1. First, the principle of comprehensiveness. This means that all economies contribute to shared global goals in ways that are equitable, and environmentally and economically effective.
  2. Second, is the need to respect different domestic circumstances and capacities.
  3. Third, is the importance of flexibility and recognising diverse approaches and practical actions.
  4. Fourth, is the important role for co-operation on low and zero emissions energy sources and technologies, particularly coal and other fossil fuels.
  5. Fifth, is the importance of addressing forests and land use in the post-2012 arrangement.
  6. Sixth, is the importance of promoting open trade and investment.
  7. And, seventh, is the importance of support for effective adaptation strategies.

Much of the media coverage of the summit interpreted Ban Ki-Moon’s summary comment that “All other processes or initiatives should be compatible with the UNFCCC process and should feed into it, facilitating its successful conclusion” as an implied swipe at the US / Australian approach. But the AP6-ers can handle that tactic. Over the autumn, we’ll probably find that they’re more than happy to pledge their loyalty to the UNFCCC process: it’s just that their vision for it is as the home for adaptation, financing and technology, while mitigation is “dealt with” elsewhere.

All in all, it’s going to be a pretty interesting few months between now and Bali…