'Slow, creeping catastrophe'

Former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Michael Zammit Cutajar, speaks to Anju Sharma and Neelam Singh on the impact of the climate negotiations, the damaging role of the US and the road ahead for developing countries. Excerpts from the interview

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

What has been the most challenging moment in your 11 years as executive secretary of the UNFCCC?
Maintaining optimism after The Hague (where the sixth conference of parties broke down without any decisions, threatening the future of the Kyoto Protocol). Another challenge was the shift of the secretariat from Geneva to France. It was a political decision with some human cost.

My relationship to the negotiations has been one of proximity, sometimes involvement, in the sense that sometimes I would be asked to provide some sort of fix for a blockage. But I have always been very conscious that the climate negotiations, like they should be, are negotiations between governments who are jealous of their positions. So my challenges are not necessarily those of a negotiator.

To what extent have the climate negotiations been able to deal with climate change?
We recognise the problem, and are starting to work out how to deal with it. Of course, recognition of the problemis a big step. There are still people who doubt the science, while others maynot doubt the science, but say well,we can deal with it later. I am one of those who is convinced that the ear-lier you start to deal with climate change, the less it will cost. The nego-tiator is going to be inspired or motivated by economic considerations -- by what is the cost of action. They donot factor in the cost of inaction -- adaptation is for later, somebody else is adapting.

The countries that have to take action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are not the countries that are going to be most affected. Do you think the industrialised countries are adopting a shortsighted and selfish approach in this matter?
Shortsighted yes, because rich countries think they will be able to buy their way out of this problem. This is the fundamental inequity of climate change, of the process itself: while it is a product of economic growth and consumption patterns in rich countries, the impact is on the least developed. Looking at it on a long-term basis, I think recognition of the issue, the conviction that there is a problem, is a major step. Climate change is a long-term phenomenon, and there are no quick fixes.

But do we have time to delay action?
I'm not saying we should delay action, but that we should be taking the long-term view. And when somebody says that, well, maybe in 10 years we will have a better solution, it is a rational argument. I wouldn't agree with that argument because I would say let's start with what we know now. I'm not in favour of inaction. Nor do I approve of an exaggerated representation of the danger. The world is not burning. It is a very slow, creeping catastrophe.

How do you see the engagement from developing countries? It is not a question that is being addressed so far.
Well, it should be. I would say that unless and until the Kyoto Protocol is in force, it is no use talking at all about developing countries' commitments. Indeed, if I were a developing country negotiator, I would wait to see serious steps taken by industrialised countries towards meeting commitment.

I think it will be useful in the meantime to look at two topics that have not been developed in the discussions. One is to work on a longer-term target. One of the weaknesses of Kyoto is that although it sets up the system for emission reduction, it only gives a short five-year target. This doesn't give enough indication of where we are heading with respect to burden sharing. I think we should try and go beyond five years, and work out where we should be in 2050.

How would you consider the sharing to happen -- on a per capita basis?
Per capita as a guide is certainly the only typical guide that there is, but I don't think it will happen that way. I don't think that governments would be prepared to put their name to something that says 'per capita'. The first step would be to recognise what (developing countries are doing) already, for instance, China and its record in avoiding emissions. That idea of recognition is an important assurance.

How does the world deal with the US, which is a barrier in the climate negotiations?
There are two things. One is that you are negotiating with a person who is not sure that he or she can sell the result of the negotiations to the legislature. The second factor is the economic and political weight of the us. You cannot ignore it. Why did Clinton go and agree to the Kyoto Protocol when he knew that the us senate wouldn't ratify? The problem with the us is this that you are never quite sure if we have a valid interlocutor, somebody who can deliver on a deal. And that is true not just of the environmental treaties. Added to which is the general reluctance of the us to sign up to an international treaty. The list of treaties it hasn't signed is very long. Its pattern of behaviour is to negotiate a treaty, and then not ratify it, but act in accordance with it on the side.

One of the inputs to (George Bush's climate plan) is a report from the Council of Economic Advisors. I was quite saddened to find a statement init, which says that international emissions trading is not easy or realisitic. And the experience of the us with climate change and sulphur dioxide is not exportable. When the Kyoto Protocol was being negotiated, trading was a make or break issue for the us. It is very difficult to deal with them, and I don't have a solution for it.

Do you think there is a way out?
Yes. As President George W Bush might say in another context: the cause is just. Now there are signs of dissatisfaction within the us. us corporations, who had been gearing up to participate in the move towards the new carbon economy are seeking ways of engaging despite the fact that their government is not in.

How does this sort of attitude from a superpower bode for a fair global framework for cooperation?
Typically, the us always wins vis--vis the eu and Japan. To put it very clearly, vis--vis the eu, they tend to stick up on different positions, and then the eu has to concede because otherwise they lose the us. This is again not just climate but in general. Perhaps on trade the eu is stronger but otherwise no. Japan wants to be a part of the us position.

The convention negotiations was my first exposure to this, and one ofthe clear guidelines of the then chairperson of the negotiations was that we must have a deal with the us in. If we havea much better deal with the us out, what's the point? So the us does always win. Maybe with some pushing and pulling, not always being concessional, trying to get the us strategically, thatis the way out until you have some countervailing force in the world that can bring the us on board. That is the long-term strategy.

How much would you say the US has affected the climate change negotiations?
Very much. The us, after all, has been the source of much of the climatescience. The us has also been at the forefront of the design of the instrum-ent. The Kyoto protocol is made in the us. It may be rejected but it is madein the us. And even the clean development mechanism (cdm). So the us has been extremely influential in raisingthe subject, in giving it a scientific basis and designing the regime.

How would you rate the performance of developing country leaders in the climate negotiations?
Well, they have been very good on certain points of principles. The convention laid down the underlying principles that had a very strong input from developing countries. They were effective in determining the Berlin mandate, which essentially says no commitments to developing countries in the protocol. They are weak in some ways, not because of lack of negotiating skills but very often the issue is not very important in the national priority.

Do you think climate is going to be an issue at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)?
The simple answer is 'no', but let me qualify that. I don't think there will be any negotiations on climate issues at wssd. It will certainly be kept off the agenda. But Johannesburg is the political target for ratification. Many governments will want to go there having ratified the protocol, including India, I hope. The fundamental underpinnings of climate change will be discussed there. Consumption patterns that are sustainable and poverty alleviation -- that is what is driving climate change.

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