Science - January 8, 2010

Down with the climate summit

The climate summit is a flop because traditional diplomacy has failed. Its participants take a much too simplistic view of the climate issue and are too preoccupied with negotiations for an all-encompassing treaty. Should that treaty be in sight, it often might just pay lip service to climate control measures at national and regional levels. This view is given by top civil servant Hans Hoogeveen from the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, who obtained his PhD on 6 January in Wageningen.

Hoogeveen was from 1997 to 2005 the chairman of the United Nations Forum on Forests, which implements global agreements concerning deforestation and loss of bio-diversity in the world. Drawing upon lessons from that period, he propounds a different approach in his thesis.
To achieve more results in complex global issues such as a climate policy, policy makers must firstly not reduce the issue into smaller, measurable units, such as carbon dioxide emission. Climate, agriculture and deforestation are all linked in practice, and therefore have to be integrated if practical results are to be achieved, argued Hoogeveen. Secondly, international forums such as those of the UN have to show that they can use their treaty to exercise control over the conduct of member countries. They would do better to establish global aims and then allow room for regional differences in carrying out these aims, says the top civil servant. 
Circle
In addition, Hoogeveen feels that negotiations should not be kept within the circle of government leaders, while involved groups try to exert influence in the sidelines during the conference. These groups should be given major roles, he proposes, because the private sector and non-governmental organizations can help to solve global problems. He refers to, for example, the certification systems for sustainable timber cultivation.
Bodies such as the UN and the World Trade Organization should decide less, and instead be more involved in organizing discussions. They should find out: what related problems should be discussed, who should discuss these problems and at which level (global, regional or national), and which instruments are necessary for dealing with the problems. Hoogeveen calls this the 'portfolio approach'. He expects then that more room will be created to discuss the contents of the problem and to arrive at ready-to-use solutions in each area. 
Old school
Louise Fresco, university professor in Amsterdam and one of the opponents at the graduation, was not won over by this approach. Fresco, who paid study fees at the FAO, felt that UN organizations are too deep-rooted in the old school and conservative to direct this 'new diplomacy'. PhD supervisor Adil Najam, professor at Boston University, also questioned whether a revamp of international diplomacy could be carried out 'from inside out', or should the system be cracked from outside. Hoogeveen - 'I'm an optimist by nature' - sees possibilities. While drawing up a forest treaty during his UN period, he introduced two new ideas to improve negotiations, one of which was the portfolio approach. That hadn't been plain sailing though - the introduction had taken fifteen years.

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