Thinking the Unthinkable – The UNFCCC without the US?

If you think the upcoming Doha Climate Conference will be full of yet more uneventful climate diplomatic fanfare, think again. The Guardian recently reported that the US may be considering diverting substantive elements of climate change governance away from the long-established United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) framework and into an alternative arena – the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF). This move would seriously undermine, or even completely kill the future effectiveness of the UNFCCC. Why might the US to possibly go down this route and what would be the ramifications? Let us take a closer look at both the UNFCCC and the MEF frameworks.

The current UNFCCC framework utilises a consensus-based decision making process, and every word in the negotiation text needs to be agreed upon by almost 200 member states present at the table. Given their own unique situation, each member state will bring to the table its own agenda, expectation and commitment. For instance, small island nations on the verge of being submerged have consistently voiced a need for developed countries to make dramatic cuts in climate emissions to contain global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees Celsius.  However, such significant reductions are not what the US can sell domestically. And as these small islands (AOSIS) and Least Developed Countries form alliances and become increasingly vocalised, there is a growing frustration for Parties such as the US, as it is no longer smooth sailing for the industrialised world to hijack the negotiation and commit less.

Aside from the issue of reaching consensus, the Principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), which recognises the differing capacities and economic development needs of developing countries, is also a contributing factor to the US’s possible intention of moving away from UNFCCC. Under this principle, countries are classified into “industrialized countries and economies in transition” or “Annex I”, such as U.S., the EU and Canada; and developing countries or “Non Annex I”, such as China, India and Brazil. Take the Kyoto Protocol, the only legally-binding climate treaty under the UNFCCC framework, as an example: only Annex I countries have quantified mitigation mandates. However, the line between Annex I and Non-Annex I countries was drawn at the inception of UNFCCC in 1992 based on the economic standing of the respective countries at that time. Now 20 years later, many then-developing countries have emerged as economic powerhouses, and the line has been considerably blurred.  Yet, countries like China, India and Brazil can continue to enjoy their Non-Annex I status, as moving into Annex I is generally voluntary. From the US’s point of view, this creates the issue of fairness, as the yoke of emission reductions is not been shared equally. And since any future convention or protocols negotiated under the UNFCCC framework would incorporate the same principle of CBDR, I think it is unlikely that US, with so much fear of the rising power of developing countries, especially China, would accept any legally-binding treaty under the UNFCCC framework with ease.

Therefore, to completely escape from the discordant voices of a plurality and the ‘shackles’ of CBDR, the US may move away from the UNFCCC framework and seek an alternative policy platform. MEF seems to be a good candidate: it was proposed by the US, covers some 85 percent of the global emissions, and most importantly, makes no differentiation between its mere 17 members who would otherwise span both Annex I and Non-Annex I divisions. Through shifting its focus to work under the MEF, it is possible for the US to reach a consensus with the other 16 members instead of nearly 200 under the UNFCCC. And at the same time, the US can shift some of the burden which would otherwise have been borne by the Annex I countries to emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil. There are, therefore, logical reasons for the US to advocate the shift from UNFCCC to MEF.

However the consequence of the US abandoning the UNFCCC will be more far-reaching. Given its immense political and economic influence, if the US does take ‘leadership’ to move the talks from UNFCCC to MEF, many other parties with similar positions and interests (such as the Umbrella Group) might also follow. This may potentially trigger a mass exodus of the non-EU developed countries, which will seriously impair the integrity of the UNFCCC framework, and may even eventually destroy its efficacy all together.

And instead of a UNFCCC convention which will capture the view of all parties (albeit to different extent), MEF will at best produce a unilateral, lukewarm treaty that will preclude the interests of the nations which are desperate for urgent global-wide mitigation and adaptation efforts. For the US, this might be a victory: the commitment is now palatable at the domestic level, and developing countries like China and India are also on the mitigation boat together. But for the world, as we lose the UNFCCC, which is “the one and only place where formal negotiations and, above all, decisions take place and where treaties are negotiated” [1], the impact will be serious and irreversible.

Therefore, it is important for the US to stay committed to efforts under the UNFCCC framework, which will of course entail the US to not only have a greater domestic policy action, but also a long-term vision that sees “the pursuit of equity [not] as an obstacle, [but] as an opportunity to ensure all countries take on greater efforts.”

However, despite these speculations, exactly how the US’s position will play out in Doha remains uncertain. I will be following the US delegation and their negotiations closely, and report back on any first hand updates on the progress (which I sincerely hope, are progressive).


[1] UNFCCC Secretariat-General Christiana Figueres

[2] Lies Craeynest, Oxfam