Miliband Suggests UNFCCC Reforms: Smaller Groups, More Expertise

One Idea Is a UN Security Council for Climate Change

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Reporting from London

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change would be far more effective if it relied more on smaller, representative groups of countries meeting year-round to hammer out the details of a future climate agreement, Britain’s climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, told Parliament.

He also suggested that the leadership of the UNFCCC’s annual Conference of Parties meetings needs an overhaul — instead of career politicians leading the way toward an international agreement, the COP needs diplomatic and climate change experts at the helm.

Miliband outlined several ideas for institutional reforms of the UNFCCC during a hearing last week before the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee.

The most likely of those reforms to be embraced at the international level are the creation and utilization of smaller groupings of countries to inform discussions in the larger body and a transformation of the COP presidency, experts say.

Fewer Voices, Focused on Progress

Usually known as "friends of the chair," smaller groups were utilized in Copenhagen, but only at the end of the process. Miliband remarked that he would like to see a smaller representative group of countries “that can take forward and inform negotiations” and liaise with the larger group of 192 countries.

The only reason a Copenhagen Accord was reached at all was “because we ended up with a small group with negotiations with a text that had been tabled. That only happened at Copenhagen at 3 o’clock in the morning" on Friday, the final day, he explained.

The secretary said he was “quite struck” that negotiators met so often without making progress, and that therefore, it is worth considering having national environment ministers involved in more frequent negotiations, which should improve political ownership of the process.

Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at IIED’s Climate Change Group, explained after the hearing that in the perceptions of many countries, that 3 a.m. negotiating session in Copenhagen was unrelated to what was happening in the UNFCCC.

“It became a parallel process of it’s own that was making substantive decisions and negotiations and horse trading that was unrelated to what was being discussed in the UNFCCC plenary, and that, I think, is very dangerous and that’s one of the reasons why the accord was not adopted in the end — it was foisted on the negotiators.”

Huq thinks small groups are a good idea, but the key will be to make the smaller groupings more transparent and legitimate.

Miliband and members of the committee also suggested that, at some point in the future, a UN security council for climate change or a WTO-like body could be created.

Huq says this is not outside the realm of possible, as smaller bodies have already been created for CDM management and adaptation and mitigation funding.

Expert Leadership

The other most likely reform stems from the crack up of the Danish COP15 leadership, which acutely exposed a central structural weakness in the negotiating process: such nuanced and technically specific negotiations cannot be done by a career politician and is indeed anathema to the process.

“I can’t overestimate the complexity of these negotiations," Miliband remarked. "Often these negotiations are conducted with reverence to what seem like biblical texts — which is the Convention, the Kyoto Protocol, and different clauses of those documents. Part of what the new person that does this job as the head of the UNFCCC needs to be, I think, it’s better it’s someone who is steeped in that and can get through this.”

Huq agrees with that assessment.

“I think the fact that the COP presidency changes every year, and you get a new individual every year, and sometimes the individual is really not up to speed on the intricacies of international negotiation — it’s an impediment," he said. "They [the negotiations] are too important now to be left to ad hoc amateurs, as it were, coming in. So some level of continuity with seasoned diplomats who are capable of doing things.”

Some in the policy community are floating the idea of capable vice presidents, Huq noted. "There are well qualified diplomats who can do that who could be brought in as vice presidents and then charged with doing these smaller group meetings and informal discussions,” he said. In that scenario, the COP presidency would remain with the host country, but it would be a ceremonial position.

Parliament member Joan Walley called for highly trained mediators to be involved in the negotiating process.

“It’s about actually communication, and because of the complexity of it, it’s very important that all participants are working to a clear specification and there’s clear communication of what that specification should be," Walley said. "And that, I think, is where there’s a gap, a sort of mismatch between on the one level the political aspirations and on another level of how people can sign up to it.”

While Miliband acknowledged that mediators might be a good addition, he noted that they would have to be up to speed on the technical specifications of the negotiations.

Likelihood of Reform?

Another structural reform proposed for the process, according to Huq, is to move to majority vote rather than the current unanimous consensus. At the Copenhagen conference, a handful of countries were able to prevent adoption of the Copenhagen Accord because of the need for consensus. Huq thinks that level of change is unlikely, however, because majority rule would have to be adopted by the COP with unanimity.

Sanjeev Kumar, formerly of WWF UK and now with consultancy, takes a different view of structural reforms.

“The very first thing we need to do is to take a step backwards and ask ourselves, ‘what do we want to achieve?’ And then we start looking at where do we achieve it and what’s the architecture to deliver that result," Kumar said. "That’s a long way from where we are now.

“If we’re talking about a big globally binding treaty do you need an institution to deliver the decision or just to enforce that decision. There are a lot of people that talk about institutions, but … you don’t run an institution just for the sake of an institution.”

In fact, a new report from the Finnish Institute for International Affairs analyzing the EU’s bargaining position on climate change, subtitled “Getting Back in the Game,” concludes that “the modus operandi may shift towards a principle of action first, then architecture.”

However, any reforms away from the existing regime architecture might be unrealistic. In establishing the fast-track financing mechanism at Copenhagen, the preference by developing countries to establish a new, fairer, institution failed, and the decision was made, due to time constraints, to use existing institutions.

UK Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) spokeswoman Shruti Dudhia said the UK would not be submitting formal suggestions to the UNFCCC for reform, as “that’s not our place,” but she said DECC would “work with the UNFCCC” to move the negotiations forward.

During the hearing, Peter Betts, DECC’s director of international climate change, commented,

“We are working very closely with the foreign office to draw lessons from other processes and other institutions to try and see if there are ways we could reform the UNFCCC.”

Miliband’s testimony, however, leaves little doubt that there will be pressure to reform the negotiation process. He said of the failure at Copenhagen, “we must avoid that happening again, and that must involve reforms of the UNFCCC and other things.”

Whatever shape procedural reforms take, it is clear they are urgently needed, critical to moving negotiations forward, and would find broad-based support from the COP.


See also:

Climate Policy Experts Not Optimistic About a Binding Agreement This Year — or Next

For Developing Nation Advocates, Hope and Fear for a New UN Climate Chief

Conference of Parties ‘Takes Note’ of Copenhagen Accord


(Photo: Zoe Norfolk/DECC)