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December 19, 2008

What did Poznan mean for progress on climate change?

December 19, 2008
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I didn’t attend last week’s climate summit, but I’ve talked to a few Oxfam staff who did, and got to thinking about how the talks compare with other negotiations, especially on trade. (For a more specific debrief on the Poznan outcome see here).

It feels like Poznan represented a shift in dynamics, from aid to trade, or from New Testament to Old. Let me explain. In terms of political economy, the key difference between international negotiations on aid and those on trade is that trade talks are fundamentally a domestic issue – changing trade rules creates winners and losers within rich countries, who lobby hard for their interests. Politicians ignore them at their peril. In contrast, aid is primarily a broadly dispersed taxpayer issue, and quite a small one at that, so that negotiators do not come under the same degree of scrutiny and pressure.

And the biblical reference? Personal shorthand – aid is about ‘love they neighbour’, trade negotiations are more like ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’. Up until Poznan, the EU in particular appeared ready to behave in a somewhat disinterested, New Testament fashion. Both member states and the Commission seemed to be listening to the evidence, agreeing the aggressive ’20-20-20’ plan in January 2008 – a comprehensive climate and renewable energy package designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent by 2020, increase to 20 percent by 2020 the renewable energy share of the energy mix, and improve energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2020. That, and the EU’s avowed readiness to channel significant funds to poor countries for adaptation, looked like the ingredients of a grand bargain on climate change.

That was then; this is now. Poznan saw a gathering backlash within the EU, which dragged its feet on helping poor countries to adapt (only a concerted barrage from developing countries and NGOs forced them to back down and allow developing country governments direct access to UN adaptation funds, rather than being forced to go through intermediaries like the World Bank), but then they blocked efforts to raise the amount of adaptation funds available, which currently fall pitifully short of what’s needed. Goodwill and trust took a battering, and it feels like the climate change talks have entered their hardball phase.

Why the shift? I find it helpful when thinking about these processes to look at the ‘three I’s’: Ideas, Interests and Institutions. In the case of the channel for adaptation finance, it looks more like a problem of ideas and institutions – EU officials basically don’t trust developing country governments to manage their own affairs. They eventually reversed their position on that, but on the volume of funding, interests also kicked in. With billions dependent on the outcome, an increasingly well-organized and experienced corporate lobby also ensured that back in Brussels, the EU watered down the 20/20/20 deal right in the middle of Poznan. Less money will be raised because polluting European industries successfully lobbied for many emissions permits to be handed out free rather than auctioned, and the reduced income that accrues will no longer be earmarked for adaptation. Public backtracking on that scale in front of the rest of the world unsurprisingly further soured the mood in Poznan.

The countervailing forces needed both within the EU and beyond will have to involve progressive industrial lobbies (eg the renewables sector), mass mobilization by civil society organizations and a much greater degree of courage and political leadership than was on offer in Poznan, including from developing countries. Where is the climate change Mandela? Will Obama pick up the baton so publicly dropped by Europe in Poznan? The road to the Copenhagen COP in December 2009, supposedly the culmination of the climate change talks, is looking a good deal steeper after Poznan.



  1. I liked the way you have alluded to biblical expressions to explain the stalemate at Poznan.Perhaps you can try Hindu mythology next time.

    My comments are- global economic down turn has had more profound impact on short term political self preservation.There is no doubt the impact of the down turn had very serious dampening impact at indivual levels particularly in the devloped and emeging economies too- the kind of civic response and interest to that extent has been less than lukewarm.

    Far greater civic body expressions in the key Western capital is needed along with Industrail lobby which is already there in small measure and is not inimical to the ideals of the deal.

    Lastly, we need mini- millions of Obamas and Mandelas not just few leaders.

  2. 2009 is definitely going to be a year of deep shifts in the international politics of climate change, so thinking through the key drivers in this way is really important.

    If we go with the aid-to-trade frame, we should also be clear about the dangers of the “zero-sum” approach of the trade negs being applied to the climate negotiations. Holding out on a hard-line position for greater negotiating leverage and concessions down the line has been a common tactic in the Doha round. One analysis says that rich countries — including the EU — were doing exactly the same in Poznan: not giving anything away so as to be able to extract commitments from the G77/China in Copenhagen. This approach is of course understandable from the perspective of a trade association in Washington, DC, or Brussels. But considering what’s at stake in the climate negotiations, it’s a premise that will lead to no deal at best, and a bad deal at worst (as with the EU package). If countries didn’t get what they were bargaining for under the WTO, consumers and export producers might lose out a bit, and poor people would lose opportunities. If countries don’t get what science dictates is required and equity says is needed out of Copenhagen, everyone will lose a great deal more, and more than just losing a route out of poverty, many poor people will even lose their lives. This is why equity is so important in the context of climate change.

    An important shift that’s related but missing from the analysis above is a good news story: the shift from aid to “polluter pays”. The G77 in Poznan was clear that it didn’t want petty hand-outs, provided by rich countries on a voluntary basis. They’ve been there (since the UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, the 0.7% aid pledge etc.), done that, and know it doesn’t work. They’re now looking for the big Kahuna, and so held firm on getting what’s required for a post-2012 regime that actually delivers adequate, predictable financing along the lines of a true “polluter pays” model. That’s why they held out for control of the Adaptation Finance direct access issue, and wouldn’t climb down from extending the share of proceeds to the big money. They clearly said that’s what’s needed in Copenhagen and if Annex One countries (developed nations) offer anything less there won’t be a deal. This message is starting to get through to the media and we need political leaders in Washington, Brussels, Tokyo and elsewhere to listen carefully. See Washington Post story:
    Most rich countries still think about the climate negotiations mostly as a struggle about the emissions reduction effort. From a developing country perspective, however, that’s a necessary but insufficient part of the picture. Poor countries are already being stuck with the adaptation tab, and unless rich countries demonstrate they’re willing to pick up their fair share, they can forget about greater contributions from the developing world to the mitigation effort.

    Finally, the other good news story from Poznan was the extent to which the G77/China played a pro-active role. They did well, as a bloc, to bring proposals to Poznan on finance & tech & even agreed an internal position on adaptation (which wasn’t tabled, probably because they realised it was pretty pointless given the lack of engagement on the part of rich countries). Brazil announced a new emissions reduction plan in the early days of the conference, and Mexico an historic emissions cut pledge on the penultimate day. So we can definitely say they were on the front foot. But we can also ask, “What would have happened if they had come to Poznan with even more, and more detailed, positions — on the shared vision, on mitigation, adaptation, etc.? What if they had come to Poznan with 10 concrete proposals instead of 2?” That could have increased their leverage even more and put them in a much stronger position going into 2009. They can still come in strong in Bonn in March if they really put their mind to it. And they have every reason to do so. If they just sit back now and wait for the rich countries to act, they’re likely to be disappointed with the direction the negotiations take. In many ways, the G77/China had it easy in Poznan, with the US effectively absent, and the EU and other Annex 1 countries otherwise preoccupied… developing countries too will need to up their game in 2009 if they hope to get a fair and adequate deal in Copenhagen.

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