Don’t let frustration paralyse climate talks: UN environment chief (Interview)

May 25th, 2010 - 7:30 pm ICT by IANS  

By Joydeep Gupta
Punta del Este (Uruguay), May 25 (IANS) People are justified in being disappointed with the last climate summit in Copenhagen, but their leaders must ensure this frustration does not paralyse negotiations for a global climate deal, cautions UN Environment Programme (UNEP) chief Achim Steiner.

The inability to reach a legally binding global treaty at last year’s Copenhagen summit to tackle climate change - which continues to worsen and is already affecting farm output, making droughts, floods and storms more frequent and severe and raising the sea level - has naturally frustrated many, Steiner agreed.

“But what should not happen is people saying they are not ready talk any more,” Steiner warned in an interview to IANS here, shortly after the start of the assembly of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) — which takes place once in four years and where it is decided how countries will spend the millions of dollars now available for green projects.

As negotiators from 190-odd governments prepare to meet at Bonn from May 31 to restart climate talks in an atmosphere of scepticism in view of the failure at Copenhagen, Steiner said: “They should agree on how financing (to help developing countries more to a greener economy) will flow after the Copenhagen Accord (which does not have any legal standing, though many countries including India have backed it).”

Steiner felt the lack of result at Copenhagen had obscured the amount of progress made in reducing (carbon) emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

“We should recognise how close (to a global treaty) we came in Copenhagen - recognise the number of miles walked, not just the last mile that was not,” Steiner, also a UN Undersecretary General, told IANS.

“Look at the number of commitments made by emerging economies like India to reduce the intensity of their carbon emissions even as the countries continue to grow. Then there is the not insignificant sum of $30 billion promised by developed countries over the next three years. So there are plenty of things to build on in Cancun (where the next climate summit will take place).”

Referring to the GEF assembly that has started here and that will decide how to spend $4.25 billion over the next four years, Steiner said: “There is room for a lot of action to tackle environmental problems. The president of Mexico and the UN secretary general are very active on this issue. So we have to ensure that the frustration of Copenhagen does not lead to paralysis in action either.”

But international environmental talks are being bogged down one after another. After the climate impasse, there are severe disagreements between developed and developing countries over the convention on biodiversity, especially over medicinal plants.

Poor countries, where knowledge of how to use these plants has traditionally been stored, want local communities to get a large share of the money that pharmaceutical companies make when they produce medicines from these plants.

Rich countries are objecting to the quantum of the share, leading to a breakdown of talks over what the negotiators call access and benefit sharing (ABS).

India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has also flagged this and the associated issue of what he calls “biopiracy” - using traditional knowledge without sufficient payment to local communities.

A recent UNEP report showed that not a single country had managed to reverse the loss of its plants and animals, Ramesh has expressed the fear that the ABS debate may derail any global treaty in the matter.

But Steiner looked at the positive side of the debate.

“ABS has been the third pillar of the convention on biological diversity since the early 1990s. Now that the debate over it is reaching this stage, it shows that we are beginning to address fundamental issues. We should welcome these serious negations. We should not be disheartened.”

If the biodiversity negotiators end up paying local communities a significant sum for their traditional knowledge, that decision will go against an agreement in the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) regime.

Asked who should blink first, Steiner replied: “Trade will have to be aligned with the needs of the environment. But it’s a chicken and egg situation where we can’t afford to wait till the other party moves. We have to go ahead with what we can do.”

(Joydeep Gupta can be contacted at

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