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Businesses Work to Turn Government Rhetoric Into Action at COP17

As COP17 gets underway, one cannot help but be struck by contrasting attitudes of governments here with many in the business community.

The deadlock and near debacle of the Copenhagen meeting two years ago is still fresh in everyone’s memory, and many still question the viability of the current U.N. process. There are 190-plus countries represented -- along with innumerable non-governmental, U.N. and business representatives -- here in Durban for two weeks of negotiations to define the future of the Kyoto Protocol, and the possibility of a longer-term and more inclusive agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn’t get much more multilateral than that.

In our view, while it is challenging to discuss complex environmental and economic issues with nearly 200 sovereign governments, what has hobbled progress is not the number of countries, but rather the burden of numerous decisions and agreements which have come before, and now serve as binding precedents.

Chief among these is the fact that developing countries are not obliged to adopt binding reduction targets, based on ingrained references to differentiated responsibilities for developed and developing countries that date back to the early days of this 20-year-long U.N. process.

Yet much has changed in those two decades. Some countries that were developing countries then, such as China and India, are now growing rapidly and are major economic forces in their own right. If current trends continue in the fastest growing developing country economies, reductions made in developed countries will be cancelled out and overtaken by emissions in the BRICs in coming years.

The United States and other countries in the so-called Umbrella Group (which also includes Australia, Canada, Russia and Japan) have strongly encouraged a new framework that obliges all major economies and emitters, both from developed and developing countries, to take appropriate action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, as evidenced in the entrenched positions being expressed here, this is prevented by the precedents that do not allow updating to reflect today’s realities.

The private sector will be a key part of the solution to climate change. And so, while many countries in Durban continue to insist on a status quo that is two decades out of date, business organizations in the largest emitting countries have chosen to recognize economic reality. They have formed the Major Economies Business Forum on Energy Security and Climate Change (BizMEF), which brings together national cross-sectoral business organizations from five continents, representing millions of companies.

This grouping reflects both the major contribution of greenhouse gas emissions and the significant economic resources at the disposal of companies in those countries. Modeled after the government-to-government Major Economies Forum, BizMEF is a platform for these groups to:

• promote dialogue and exchange views on climate change and energy security across a broad spectrum of business interests including major developed, emerging, and developing economies;

• highlight areas of agreement among participating organizations on the most important issues for business in international climate change policy forums;

• promote economy-wide solutions to energy security and climate change that reflects the interconnectedness of the global economy by trade, supply and value chains; and

• share these views with governments, international bodies, other business organizations, the press and the public.

In Durban, BizMEF will be offering its recommendations in critical areas for business, including trade and competitiveness, investment and technology innovation.

Rather than dwell on the seemingly diverging worlds of U.N. process and business reality, BizMEF is underscoring the urgent need to bring business responsiveness, innovation and expertise into the process as a resource that could help revitalize these discussions. A more meaningful role for business in the discussions could deliver a more pragmatic and cost-effective approach than we have seen emerging from the traditional government-to-government negotiating model.

Ultimately it will be companies, working in conjunction with governments and local communities, that will contribute the commercial and technological improvements and breakthroughs required to deliver the outcomes that U.N. negotiators are seeking. We believe that steps should be implemented so that the international process can take explicit and formal advantage of the range of technical expertise and relevant, responsible perspectives that business can provide.

There is no shortage of good ideas on how to improve engagement between the U.N. and the business community, and these are explored in a just-released BizMEF issue paper [PDF].

Business is not seeking either to become an official party to the negotiations or to forge consensus on political issues. Rather, the private sector wishes share its views on “technical” issues related to design and implementation of mechanisms and effective institutions, such as procedures for measurement, reporting and verification, technology and finance. Business wants to offer its views on creating the right frameworks to stimulate the investments and innovations that that the climate challenge requires.

We think that moving from the disparate and contrasting approaches in the public and private sectors, toward collaboration and comprehensive engagement among all relevant groups, will lead to the progress and practical solutions, which have evaded the U.N. climate negotiations in recent years.

COP17 photo CC-licensed by UNFCCC.

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