Milan & Josh's Speech to UNSA | UN climate change regime, the Paris Agreement & tips for redesigning the UN

The below are speech notes compiled by Milan and Josh for the purposes of their presentation to the United Nations Student Association at UQ on 16 March 2017. UNSA SpeechToday we are going to take you through a basic overview of the UN Climate Negotiations - how they came about, what they are and some key points flowing from the Paris Agreement (which many of you have no doubt heard about).Beyond our interest in international law, Josh and I are with an organisation called The Legal Forecast – we are a group of early-career legal professionals interested in the future of law.Therefore Josh and I thought we might try to get through the climate stuff so we can talk to you about the future of the UN and specifically the plans of a Swedish billionaire to award 5 million dollars to anyone who can come up with a better system.Josh and I are unashamed optimists and we genuinely believe that it could be someone in this room who wins that money. So stay tuned and we’ll give you some tips to get started.UN CLIMATE CHANGE SYSTEM(1) 60s - 90sThe Paris Agreement is an international treaty which deals with greenhouse gases emissions mitigation and other things like adaption to climate change and climate finance.Before we drill into some key points about the Paris Agreement, it is important for tonight’s purposes to explain to you, as briefly as we can, how the agreement came about.60s In the two decades after the UN’s establishment (the 1940s - 1960s), environmental issues did not rank highly on the global agenda.The Economic and Social Council is one of the six main organs of the UN (established by the UN Charter in 1946).  It is the United Nations' central platform for reflection, debate, and innovative thinking on sustainable development.On 29 May 1968,  the Economic and Social Council became the first UN organ to include the environment on its agenda by deciding to hold a UN Conference on the Human Environment.This was later endorsed by the UN General Assembly (which you’ve heard about).70sThe Conference, called the UN Scientific Conference and also known as the “First Earth Summit”, occurred in 1972 in Stockholm.Like all UN Conferences, it was essentially a meeting of governments, who had gathered to work out how they were going to solve some common issue - in this case, a bundle of environmental ones.The First Earth Summit produced:

  • a declaration setting out principles for the preservation and enhancement of the human environment and a plan for international environmental action. In this declaration, the issue of climate change was raised in a section concerning the control of pollutants.
  • The Conference also produced the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which is a UN agency that guides and coordinates environmental activities within the United Nations system.

80sOver the next 20 years, as a part of efforts to implement the decisions of the First Earth Summit, concern for the atmosphere and climate change gained importance on the international agenda.In the 80s, the international community designed and adopted several treaties to regulate transboundary air pollution and to limit the production and use of chlorofluorocarbons in order to protect the Ozone layer.90sThe United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Rio Summit or the Second Earth Summit, was a major United Nations conference held in Rio de Janeiro from in June 1992.

  • 172 governments participated;
  • Over 2400 NGOs were in attendance and there was a parallel NGO Forum
  • Several documents came out of the Rio Summit:
    • Agenda 21 - a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan of the United Nations with regard to sustainable development.;
    • the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development;
    • the Statement of Forest Principles - non-legally-binding principles on the preservation of forests;
    • the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity - its objective is to develop national strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity; and importantly for our purposes,
    • the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ...

(2) The UNFCCC & the UN Climate Conferences – what are they?

  • As the name suggests, the purpose of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was to create a framework for international cooperation to combat climate change  or (in the words of the treaty)
    • “[stabilise] greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”
  • The Framework Convention established an annual meeting of the states parties called the COP or Conference of Parties.

This is really where the path of diplomacy leading to the Paris Agreement begun

  • To date there have been 22 of these Conferences of Parties - they have developed a multitude of international treaties and soft law instruments to try and progress international cooperation and action on climate change
  • Conferences of Parties are common in the case of major prescriptive and proscriptive Conventions - often they are convened every year or every second year and are a means by which countries can progressively negotiate how action can and will be taken
    • In the case of settled Conventions, these conferences are largely a reporting mechanism - example of UNTOC - where new trends and challenges can be identified and negotiated
    • In the case of the UN Climate System, the COPs were integral to building consensus towards new legally binding international treaties to give effect to and flesh-out the goals set down in 1992 in the Framework Convention

While we do not have time to cover all of the 22 Conferences, there are a few worth mentioning and which you may have heard of:

  • At the Kyoto Conference in 1993 (COP 3), states parties negotiated the Kyoto Protocol.
    • Despite the fancy term “Protocol”, like the Framework Convention, it too is simply an international treaty.
    • It was ground-breaking in that it was the first to legally bind certain nations to emissions cuts.
    • It adopted a bifurcated system whereby developed country parties were given different obligations to developing country parties
      • in essence, the former were legally bound to emissions reductions targets (these were the Annex B parties); and
      • the latter were given aspirational or non-binding targets.
    • This split has always played a role in the history of the UN Climate negotiations - it reflects that the industrialised, developed world is disproportionately responsible for climate change whereas less developed countries have largely borne the brunt of its effects.
    • It reflects also that cheap energy, be it from dirty sources like coal, is vital to alleviating the conditions of poverty for many developing nations and therefore “binding commitments” are a much bigger ask for these nations.
  • The Copenhagen Conference in 2009 (COP 15) is an interesting one to mention merely because it was a notable low point in the negotiations.
    • There were lots of reasons for this - one was that the conference venue could not physically hold the amount of people in attendance and there were issues and frustrations flowing from mismanagement by the host nation.
    • There was a failure of consensus, negotiators were refusing to compromise and then when the heads of state like Obama and Rudd and others finally arrived the mess worsened.
    • To save political face, the US along with China, India, South Africa and Brazil drafted a “political agreement” which is now known as the Copenhagen Accord – the Conference of Parties did not adopt it, they merely “took note” of it (whatever that means)
    • A further interesting point was is that in January 2014, documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that the US government negotiators were in receipt of information during the conference that was being obtained by spying against other conference delegations.
  • At the Durban Conference (COP 17) in 2011, nations agreed that they would adopt a universal legal agreement on climate change as soon as possible, and no later than 2015.
  • Milan actually attended the 21st Conference of Parties in Lima, as a Global Voices Scholar, in 2014 (see the video)
  • That brings us to the Paris Conference in 2015 - it was the 22nd Conference of Parties.
  • The result of the Paris Conference was achievement by the international community of the goal that they had set themselves in Durban - namely, to adopt a universal legal agreement on climate change.

The Paris Agreement

  • The result, the Paris Agreement, is a unique treaty - it is an example of how compromise is often the name of the game in international negotiations
  • Parties are legally bound to volunteer individual commitments - called Nationally Determined Contributions
  • But the actual content of a Nationally Determined Contribution, and how ambitious it is, is left entirely to the country itself
    • This of course contrasts the approach of the Kyoto Protocol, which was to prescribe certain nations' targets
  • The Paris Agreement is therefore sometimes referred to as taking a bottom-up approach as opposed to a top-down approach
  • This in the eyes of many was a compromise; however, by this compromise it did achieve universal participation among nations and is groundbreaking for this reason
  • In the coming years, states parties to the Paris Agreement must establish effective mechanisms to facilitate, encourage and enforce compliance with its provisions. If such modalities are too stringent, they will fail to achieve widespread participation. If they are too weak, they will be ineffectual.

(3) Opportunities to get involved – Global Voices scholarships & other oppsGlobal Voices scholarship:

  • The Global Voices scholarship allows students to undertake a research fellowship on foreign policy and international relations, which involves trips to, inter alia, the UN, the World Bank and meetings of the G20

Endeavour Mobility Grant

  • Prof Alan Davidson is involved with the UNCITRAL Working Group on Electronic Commerce and takes two students to New York every year to attend the annual meeting of the Group

UN Internships

  • A number of UQ students have interned for various UN bodies, including the UNODC
  • UN Youth Australia appoints a Youth Representative every year to travel to the UN in New York as part of the Australian delegation, with the view to providing a perspective on youth issues

(4) UN 2.0 - Swedish billionaire has issued a $5 million award for anyone who invents a UN 2.0.Laszlo Szombatfalvy, one of Sweden’s most successful investors of all time, is urging on the younger generation to rethink global governance. Now he has issued a large award for the best idea to replace the current global governance system, through a competition called ‘A New Shape’.Potential shortcomings of the UN

  • The UN has been criticised on a number of grounds, often on the basis of its ineffectual composition and functioning
    • There is a view that the UN is Western-centric and does not adequately respond to issues outside the Anglosphere and Europe; the example of Rwanda and insufficient action on climate change, which most immediately affects Pacific Islands
  • The UN Security Council vests permanent seats in five nations (US, UK, France, Russia, China), who also all carry vetoes which can defeat any proposed resolutions
  • Votes in the General Assembly do not account for the population of each of the voting countries and also do not take into account those countries who may have a greater stake in what is being voted on
  • Because passing resolutions, or agreeing treaties or conventions is an inherently diplomatic exercise, the final versions of these agreements are often severely watered down from their original form, or have diverged substantially
    • Paris Accords as an example - no firm targets, only firm reporting
    • UNTOC Trafficking in Persons Protocol - originally tabled as a means of suppressing sex trafficking in women by Argentina, but quickly took on a broader ambit over the course of negotiations
      • An example of diplomacy being good for the final result
  • Unnecessary sophistry and bureaucracy - Milan spoke earlier about ‘Protocol’ meaning much the same thing as ‘Treaty’, which itself has basically the same function as the term ‘Convention’. There are reasons why these terms are used differently, but in a sense, it is sort of emblematic of the diplomatic red tape that in many ways characterises the UN

Need for a new UN?

  • Laszlo Szombatfalvy clearly is of the view that the UN is not representative of global interests
  • He particularly criticises the ineffectiveness of the UN, citing a lack of action on climate change as a key example
  • He espouses the view that individuals should think of themselves as global citizens, with a forward-facing view (i.e. what world are we leaving for our grandchildren)

What form could a new UN take?

  • Shortcomings of UN are arguably in many ways a product of the UN’s socio-historical context
    • Previously League of Nations, UN formed to prevent another World War
    • History by the victors - Allied nations dictated the terms by which the UN was to operate
  • Changing complexion of the globe?
    • Issue of African development - industrialisation of Africa has been a slow process; famine and drought in Africa are exacerbated by the effects of climate change, yet Africa has little political influence on the UN relative to the ‘major players’
    • Are the P5 representative?
  • Is the UN as it currently stands truly democratic?
    • Direct democracy vs representative democracy: is there any argument for a more proportionally representative form of representative democracy; would this further marginalise smaller nations, particularly Pacific Islands
  • Where should a new UN sit relative to domestic governments and other regional supra-national bodies?
    • Like the EU, where certain directives and conventions have overriding effect?
  • Can the UN ever truly be binding on its member states in a meaningful way?

By Milan Gandhi & Joshua KeenanSelection of sourcesUNGA Resolutions43/196 of 20 December 198844/172 A and B of 19 December 198944/228 of 22 December 198945/211 of 21 December 199046/168 of 19 December 1991LinksUNFCCC Timeline: Essential Background: 21:’s video (that was playing in the background):