Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general who made global warming his personal mission, is ending his hands-on involvement with international climate change negotiations.
In a strategic shift, Ban will redirect his efforts from trying to encourage movement in the international climate change negotiations to a broader agenda of promoting clean energy and sustainable development, senior UN officials said.
The officials said the change in focus reflected Ban’s realization, after his deep involvement with the failed Copenhagen summit in 2009, that world leaders are not prepared to come together in a sweeping agreement on global warming – at least not for the next few years.
“It is very evident that there will not be a single grand deal at any point in the near future,” said Robert Orr, UN assistant secretary general for strategic planning and a key adviser to Ban.
The view from UN headquarters will likely dismay developing countries who fought hard at Copenhagen and last year’s summit at Cancún for countries to renew their commitments to the Kyoto Protocol in just that type of grand deal.
UN officials say Ban will no longer be deeply involved in the negotiations leading up to the next big UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, meeting at Durban in December 2011.
“He will continue to encourage leaders to aim for a higher level of ambition but there will need to be less day-to-day stuff,” said one UN official. “The negotiations are very important, but it is the big-picture issues that he needs to be more engaged with.”
Ban will focus on broader issues of sustainability, which will be in the spotlight at a summit in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, marking 20 years since the first Earth summit.
“Because the circumstances have changed, the nature of his engagement is changing,” Orr said. “The relative balance of his time is shifting towards getting it done on the ground out there.”
UN officials, and those who closely track climate change negotiations, insist that Ban has not lessened his commitment to finding a solution to climate change. Ban has called global warming “the greatest collective challenge we face as a human family.”
“His heart is still there, and he does want to make a breakthrough in his tenure, but this might provide a better platform in the near future,” said one UN official.
However, they say he now believes there are more immediate gains to be made in mobilizing international finance to support a green economy in developing countries than in trying to persuade world leaders to commit to deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
Others inside the UN system as well as in world capitals have been circling towards a similar conclusion as Ban: that gains in clean energy technology and energy efficiency could do more in the near future to reduce emissions. They could then drive the overarching deal that the UN still sees as necessary.
“The idea that the world will gather together and parcel out emissions cuts among the various nations is probably a non-starter at this point,” said Reid Detchon, vice-president for energy and climate at the United Nations Foundation, a Washington think tank. “Whether it is in 2012 or 2013, the political consensus does not exist for a top-down approach.”
In operational terms, Ban’s climate change advisory team, which grew to about a dozen people ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, has shrunk to less than five people.
Meanwhile, he is in the course of expanding his advisory team on sustainable development to about a dozen people ahead of the Rio meeting.
“The things that are moving faster are the investments in renewable energy, the kind of actual investments and changes on the ground that will make a difference,” said Tariq Banuri, director of the division of sustainable development at the UN’s department of economic and social affairs. “There should be enough forums to accelerate and support those – some may have to wait for climate negotiations and some may not.”
Ban still believes an international agreement on climate change is essential, Orr said. “The sails haven’t been trimmed. We are still going in the same direction, but we will have to tack back and forth between the multilateral negotiating process and national realities on the ground.”
The strategic shift by the UN secretary general in some ways mirrors thinking in Washington, where environmentalists are looking at how to many progress on climate change without votes in Congress or the regulatory help of the Environment Protection Agency (EPA).
In the case of the UN, however, Ban’s decision is not a product of failure. The climate negotiations at Cancun produced modest progress on some of the essential preconditions to a global deal, such as climate finance and forest preservation.
The first public indication of a shift in direction was delivered in a speech to the UN general assembly on 14 January, in which Ban ranked sustainable development as the lead item on his agenda for 2011, ahead of climate change, human rights, security and humanitarian aid for Haiti.
But UN officials and others who closely follow climate diplomacy say the UN chief had been considering how best to move forward on climate change at least since the failure of the Copenhagen summit.
Ban has said repeatedly he sees climate change as the challenge of the generation. He staked his reputation as secretary general on gathering world leaders at Copenhagen, arguing that environment ministers and bureaucrats could not hope to command the authority to sign on to agreements that would essentially require the rewiring of their entire economy.
The hands-on approach worked in 2007 when Ban stepped in to prevent a collapse of the Bali summit over George Bush’s refusal to agree to emissions cuts.
But the elevated hopes for reaching a final deal at Copenhagen resulted instead in acrimony and a tentative last-minute understanding among the big polluters that was not fully endorsed by the 190 countries in the UN negotiating process.
The Cancun meeting, overseen by Christiana Figueres, managed to get the talks back on track, and some see Ban’s disengagement as a sign of confidence in the negotiation process.
“The phase the negotiations are going into now is one more of rule-making, rather than heads-of-state engagement,” said Jennifer Morgan, who directs the climate and energy program at the World Resources Institute in Washington. “It is just in a different phase than it was before, and the fact that Cancun was the moderate success that it was allows it to carry on the process in the way that it normally does with ministers and officials.”
*Suzanne Goldenberg is US environment correspondent for guardian.co.uk
*Photo from SolveClimateNews.com.