Meet a 2015er: Alvin Leong

“There are three potentially transformative processes taking place in the same year. We’re really at an inflection point in global development…we should seize that moment. Action takes outside the piece of paper, that’s really the key.”

This is the seventh installment of our “Meet A 2015-er” series that profiles the women and men who are helping to shape the Sustainable Development Goals and Climate Change negotiations as they take form later this year.

Today, we hear from Alvin Leong, an Energy and Environment Policy Advisor and a Fellow at the Pace Global Center for Environmental Studies, which is part of Pace Law School.

Tell us a little about yourself and what your role is in this year’s ongoing negotiations?

Originally, I was doing research on the nexus of climate change and sustainable development and looking at how there could be convergence between the UNFCCC and the SDGs. Since then, my research and policy work has broadened and become more multidisciplinary as the post-2015 development agenda has taken shape.

And, what is the nexus?

I guess there are two levels. Climate change is going to affect development in so many different ways…environment, oceans, food security, agriculture. That’s a different level from the international political and legal frameworks.

There are lot of linkages between climate change and international development. That’s clear and I think there’s consensus on that. That’s different than saying, what is the convergence between the processes? The SDGs/post-2015 and the UNFCCC are two separate processes.

Do you think the two will converge more later this year?

Several years ago, I had hoped those two processes could converge in a more formal way. That’s looking not very realistic at this point.

The SDGs are already pretty well baked and there is an express statement saying the UNFCCC is the international forum for dealing with climate change.

The climate SDG seems somewhat irrelevant then.

In that sense the climate change SDG has not met the expectations of a lot of people, especially civil society. But that doesn’t mean we should give up hope.

I think there are avenues of collaboration between what’s going with the post-2015 development agenda and organizations. For example, sustainable energy is one particular area of focus. The Sustainable Energy For All (SE4All) organization – if they drive the SDG agenda and collaborate with the UNFCCC we will see synergies and complementarities.

 Alvin Leong at the Joint session between FFD and post-2015 processes, ECOSOC - UN Headquarters, April 2015
Alvin Leong at the Joint session between FFD and post-2015 processes, ECOSOC – UN Headquarters, April 2015

Do you think the Paris agreement will mention sustainable energy?

I don’t think there will be anything expressed. You know, the Paris Agreement is just one piece of the puzzle. Even when it’s signed this year it only goes into effect in 2020, so we have the pre-2020 gap. There are also many sectors that are not covered by the Paris Agreement.

But, if the UNFCCC is going to handle climate as a whole, I think it really needs to integrate different aspects of sustainable development. Sustainable energy is just one aspect. Oceans, forests, and agriculture are others. If the UNFCCC is going to be the major forum [for discussion on climate change] then it’s going to have to be broader in intent.

UN agencies aren’t known for their expediency. Do you think this holistic approach can happen soon?

I think it takes time to develop those synergies because there is no formal process for convergence. At this moment, I think people are focused on the three different tracks: post-2015, Financing For Development (FfD), and UNFCCC.

There is actually formal convergence between FfD and post-2015, they’ve already had a few joint sessions. So there is a way to do it.

We don’t see the same thing happening between UNFCCC and post-2015. The best we can hope for now if more of an informal convergence and collaborations between various organizations who are willing to take up the challenge of SDGs…. and can feed into the UNFCCC under a broader process, broader than just a legal agreement in Paris.

Let’s talk about Paris. Is it really a legal agreement in the sense that it is legally binding?

My guess is that the Paris Agreement will be a hybrid, where there will be a small set of ‘hard laws,’ quite small. Much of it will be ‘soft laws’ [though], which are non-legally binding.

I think it will be a small set of ‘hard law’ principles that will reach consensus. I can’t say right now what those will be because it’s evolving.

Some critics say there’s no point if the Paris agreement is not legally binding. What are your thoughts as a lawyer and policy analyst?

I’m not so much troubled by whether it’s binding or non-legally binding for several reasons. One, if you have a legally binding agreement it affects ambition and participation – the effects may be negative.

Another, a legally binding agreement without world governance is of questionable enforceability.

It has a lot of positives, obviously. But, can we get there? If we insist on a legally binding agreement, can it be ratified by certain national legislatures?

Maybe we need to be pragmatic here if it’s a choice between having something versus nothing. The SDGs themselves are not legally binding, but we don’t say ‘oh, well that’s a waste of time.’ It’s not determinative of whether we have success or not.

Switching gears, you’ve done a lot of work on financing in the post-2015 and climate contexts. What’s the biggest issue in terms of financing?

There is the issue of the North-South divide which is critical here. The question is whether the Addis Ababa outcome will be the only means of implementation pillar for the post-2015 development agenda, which is what many of the advanced economies want.

Will we just have one means of implementation as a result of the Addis Ababa Alvin Leong 1outcome? Or is it only one of several complementary pillars of financing?

What’s the difference between one large stream of financing versus several smaller ones? Why separate out climate financing from [Financing for Development]?

The G-77 and China are basing their position on the Monterrey Consensus because obviously financing for development was going on long before the post-2015 agenda. The idea of merging [different] tracks has historical, ethical, and moral dimensions. Subsuming it into the post-2015 track, they feel, takes something away.

[Financing for Development] also covers non-financial means of implementation as well [like] technology facilitation and sharing –  which is a big issue. Capacity building is another one.

The G-77 wants to make it very clear that climate financing should not count as overseas development assistance. If you did, that would be…double counting. So, [Official Development Assistance] is a[Financing for Development] process and climate financing is at the UNFCCC…the G-77 prefers that.

What are your predictions for Addis Ababa, New York, and Paris in 2015?

I think we will reach agreements in [all] but the North-South divide will remain with us. We need to work over the next 5, 10, 15 years to bridge that gap. Now, how good these agreements are is up for question?

There are three potentially transformative processes taking place in the same year. We’re really at an inflection point in global development…we should seize that moment. Action takes outside the piece of paper, that’s really the key.

It’s a long term project. Use this as a floor, not a ceiling!