Could New UN Voting Rules Salvage Global Deal on Climate Change?

Three avenues to break the gridlock

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by Amelia Hill, Guardian

Climate change campaigners yesterday welcomed UN plans to amend the way changes to the Kyoto protocol are made in an effort to salvage negotiations on a new international deal.

Under the plans, countries could be forced to accept decisions made by a majority of members. Currently, no resolution can be passed by the group without full agreement.

The UN’s suggestion shows its acceptance that, after two years of deadlock, there is little chance the body will reach a global deal to reduce greenhouse emissions and tackle global warming in November in Cancun, Mexico – the next time world leaders will meet to hammer out a follow-up to the Kyoto protocol.

"It reflects the degree of desperation – and justifiable desperation – on the part of the UN," said Mark Lynas, an adviser to the Maldives government at the Copenhagen summit last year.

"It shows the UN now recognises that we’re in a situation of almost total deadlock and that the current process is not working or helping. The formal negotiations are not getting anywhere."

If the UN’s suggestions are adopted, decisions will be forced through if four-fifths of the protocol vote in favour, after all efforts to reach agreement by consensus have been exhausted. The amendments would come into force after six months.

"It is surprising and a big, big deal that the UN is suggesting such considerable reforms as a change in the consensus rules," said Lynas.

In a further attempt to galvanise the climate change body into motion, the UN also suggested that countries could be forced to opt out of any amendments, as opposed to the current arrangement whereby they must explicitly agree to any decisions tabled.

The amendment, which will be presented in Bonn in August, reads: "An amendment would enter into force after a certain period has elapsed following its adoption, except for those parties that have notified the depositary that they cannot accept the amendment."

Mistrsut Between Rich and Poor Nations Could Worsen

But Lynas warned that any changes to the current consensus situation would cause "fury, angst and consternation". It could, he said, exacerbate the deep mistrust between rich and poor countries that has already bedevilled the global climate talks.

"Countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba will claim to feel sidelined by this alteration in the rules," he said. "But the central question is whether or not America and China agree on the amendment because the world can’t go ahead without those countries."

Ed Miliband, the shadow energy secretary, acknowledged that the current deadlock has to be broken. "We know there needs to be reform of the UN process around tackling climate change," he said. "We saw at Copenhagen how some countries blocked progress and we can’t allow that to happen again."

The amendment was welcomed by Farhana Yamin, research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.

"The stalemate in negotiations has gone on for 15 years," she said. "This consensus arrangement is an extraordinary and ridiculous anomaly in the make up of Kyoto that exists in few other UN organisations.

"This is a positive way of forcing laggard countries who hold out and play their veto hand the whole time, to engage in constructive talks," she added. "Under this new system, they will realise that unless they are constructive, they will lose their voice altogether."

The third amendment suggested in the same UN paper to break the deadlock is for the Kyoto protocol to be extended after the deadline runs out on 31 December 2012.

But, the paper added, by the time all countries agree to this, there will still be a gap between the ending of the current commitment period and the start of the extension period.

It would also fail to solve the problem identified by the UN climate chief Yvo de Boer, who recently admitted that the pledges made so far by countries to cut emissions fall far short of what was needed to avoid catastrophic global warming.