KATOWICE — As a member of Germany's federal government, Gerd Müller knows what UN climate change conferences cost. The Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development spearheaded the organization of last year's edition in Bonn. At that time, the COP23, which Germany hosted to help the financially troubled Fiji Islands, cost around 60 million euros.
And these are only the costs in cash — and don't include the environmental damage caused by the fact that, every year, more than 20,000 diplomats, scientists, and lobbyists ride in planes and limousines to travel to the next Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Such a massive effort would be justifiable if something actually came out of it. But apart from overblown declarations of intent and grandiose promises, the UN conferences have done practically nothing for a quarter of a century. The world's CO2 emissions continue to rise almost unchecked, and once the annual Sunday speeches on climate change are over, the big climate sinners like China or the U.S. send their emissaries off to finance new coal mines in Africa or to lower the oil price in Saudi Arabia.
The same goes for the current COP24 summit in Katowice, Poland. There too, the inefficiency of these climate change conferences is palpable: In his opening speech, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres himself complained that only 17 out of more than 190 countries were "on course" to fulfill the pledges they'd made in Paris in 2015. This balance sheet appears even grimmer when we note that the CO2 reductions promised in Paris wouldn't even suffice to achieve the two-degree target if all states were to fully implement the promises they made at the time.
So Gerd Müller is now calling on the United Nations to finally draw conclusions. "The fact that it takes three years alone to make the Paris Agreement work at all with a rule book is an aberration in view of the enormous time pressure in protecting the climate," Müller said in Katowice, during an interview with Die Welt. "Against this backdrop, it's necessary to question the meaning of major events such as the UN climate summit, which always attracts more than 20,000 participants."
Put an end to the unproductive hustle and bustle.
Müller does not want to abolish the global climate talks. Rather, he wants to make them more efficient and leaner. The fact that Brazil's new president, Jair Bolsonaro, recently withdrew his country's invitation to organize the 2019 climate change conference is seen by Müller as an opportunity to finally put an end to the sort of unproductive hustle and bustle that these annual summits have become.
Müller's suggestion: Cancel the world climate conference next year, and then only meet every other year, but upscale the efforts to make them count. The German Development Minister proposes to continue negotiations at civil servant level, but to no longer put up the big stage for politicians every year. In the end, Müller believes this would not only be cheaper and more environmentally friendly, but also more productive for climate protection: "While the experts' commissions continue to negotiate, a meeting of the heads of state and government every two years should suffice to then also achieve substantial progress."
It is unclear, however, whether a sufficient number of politicians in the United Nations would support the idea of missing the limelight every other year.