Is there a prospect of international co-operation for the success of the planet and the common good?

March 4th, 2011 by Rt Hon Jack Straw MP

The Rt. Hon. Jack Straw MP gave this presentation at the “Prospect for a sustainable world: a new chapter for international co-operation” conference at Ecobuild 2011 in London on 3 March 2011.


The prospects for some kind of binding international agreement on climate change are both good and not good.  The good bit is that every country recognises that the future of its own peoples is best assured by an international agreement.

The not good part is that there are very few countries who wish to see their own economies, as they see it, sacrificed in pursuit of a greater good unless they can be guaranteed that other countries will be in the same boat. That’s compounded by one of the key problems that participants at Copenhagen and Cancun have identified, which is the nature of the process laid down by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was agreed at Rio, and the problem there is that only a proportion, albeit a high proportion, but some key countries absent, signed-up to the Kyoto Protocol, and that has led to there being a twin-track process and the eventual Copenhagen Accord being formulated by just a handful of countries.

The Rt. Hon Jack Straw MP speaks at the "Prospects for a Sustainable World: a new chapter for international co-operation" seminar at Ecobuild 2011 (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

We shouldn’t just blame the process though.  There is just a reality we have to face is that the developing nations don’t want to commit to cuts that fail to recognise the common but differentiated responsibilities outlined in the Kyoto Protocol, and at the same time the developed nations, particularly the United States, are reluctant to agree to swingeing emission cuts for their economies without clear signs that the developing world is also on-board.

That said, I believe we are making  some progress and that there are grounds for optimism: First, all the labours from Rio, through Kyoto, and onto Copenhagen and Cancun have changed forever the political discourse about climate change in every nation of the globe. I use as a parallel the significance of the 1946 UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Before that Declaration there was no universal norm about how each nation state should treat its people, what rights they had against the state, duties they owed each other; and even in Europe and the Americas democracy was the exception not the rule. That declaration did not lead to its immediate implementation in every country.  Still hasn’t as we can see clearly in the Middle East. But it has set a standard against which all nations are judged, and a common set of entitlements which people everywhere seek.

It has led to very significant progress as well and it’s from words that deeds can then be judged.  And as we see in the Middle East, because Democracy is an aspiration and regarded as an entitlement for people everywhere even in countries across the Middle East people are now demanding that entitlement.

What has been true for the UN Declaration of Human Rights- is now gradually becoming true for the international instruments on climate change. They have set a standard, which even if legally unenforceable at the moment, cannot be ignored by the politicians. Indeed, progress on human rights and democracy should walk in lockstep with progress on climate change. The Government of India to take one example, is bound to have a different perspective of climate change from that of countries in the so-called developed world, Western Europe and the US. But poor farmers in India know all about how changes in their local climate are adversely affecting their communities, and want and expect and are demanding action from their government.

The targets for 2020 and 2050 are at present various. But they are all quite ambitious, and they set a standard.  And that brings me to my second point- that I cannot foresee any meaningful action taking place to meet even the lower of these targets without the global community working together to reach a legally binding global deal.

Copenhagen itself, was far from ideal, but it was an important step. Last year in Cancun we saw more progress in certain areas, notably that negotiations themselves did not break down in the way they did in Copenhagen. More importantly however, Cancun saw a commitment, brokered by a developing nation, which is also the world’s largest democracy India, that both developing and developed countries should commit to cut emissions.

Some aspects of the global discussions can and should be adapted as we build towards a global deal. Bilateral agreements can play a vital role and have been shown to make a difference. As an example, Guyana and Norway agreed a very significant deal in November 2009 to preserve Guyana’s rain forests. In the UK, the current government, commendably, is seeking to make much of bilateral diplomacy as it has in the defence sphere between the UK and France; expanding this into climate change policy, I think would be a welcome next step but this is an addition and a support for a comprehensive deal and not an alternative.

There’s also a strong case for also looking beyond national governments to incorporate wider and more fundamental role for business.  That was outlined by the recent UN Environment Programme report, for example the Corporate Leader’s Group on Climate Change, which includes many of the world’s largest companies argue that a strong, effective and equitable international climate framework will stimulate domestic policy interventions, bilateral and regional deals, which are needed as a matter of urgency.”

The key question, and my final point, is whether a comprehensive global deal is possible. From what I have outlined I think it is clear that I remain optimistic. Progress has been made under the UNFCCC process over the last two Conferences, business is starting to become more vocal in arguing for a strong global deal and bilateral arrangements outside the UNFCCC process are laying important foundations as well. And of course, as I have mentioned, this process is very complicated and involves a web of nation states who want and hope to seek different outcomes. The ultimate goal of a binding deal may have to happen not with a great flash and a bang but step-by-step over the course of several meetings but that to may make it more durable.

The fundamental reason for my optimism, however, is that the costs for everyone of not reaching a deal are simply too high for countries across the world to continue to let this opportunity slip through their grasp.

Thank you very much indeed.

Hear Jack Straw’s speech.

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