Climate Justice & Sustainability

The way here and the way forward: negotiating a new climate agreement at the UNFCCC.

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At the end of an unseasonably warm week, the sun is setting on yet another round of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations. As this first round of negotiations for 2014 draws to a close in Bonn, Nathan Thanki takes an in-depth look at the mysterious Ad-Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) and what progress has - or has not - been made to date.

At the end of an unseasonably warm week in Bonn, the sun is setting on yet another round of UNFCCC (climate change) negotiations. The session, quieter than the end of year COP (Conference of the Parties) jamboree, has only dealt with one negotiating track—the “ADP.” The ADP, or Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (there’s a reason we use acronyms), is a negotiating process established in 2011 in Durban that is supposed to come to a close before COP21 in 2015, which you should note happens to be in Paris. What exactly the ADP is meant to come to a close with is still a matter of debate among countries and observers. The exact language in the decision (1/CP.17) which mandated these talks is a feat of creative ambiguity: the ADP is meant to conclude with “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.” The term “applicable to all” has been subject to much debate, too.

Since the first session talks on the ADP have been plagued with seemingly insignificant procedural fights, masking the deep divide over fundamental issues and opinions in the global effort to address and adapt to climate change. The most recent meeting in Warsaw concluded with an hour long “huddle” (a sadly common practice since Durban) rather than a transparent, negotiated process. What the huddle decided was not dramatically new, nor, as it turns out, particularly useful for the urgent action we need to tackle climate change, but it did make one very important word choice—to replace the “nationally determined commitments” that had been in the draft decision with “nationally determined contributions.”

Parties ‘huddling’ at COP19

A small change to the casual observer, but in a process where every full-stop and comma are up for interpretation, it was a rather drastic shift in the framing of what countries are actually going to have to do as a result of these all these talks. “Contributions” allows certain developed countries (ahem, the US) who don’t want to “commit” to tackling climate change to put forward weak, unbinding targets. Instead, the “contributions” framing is allows Parties to decide (“nationally determine”) what emissions reductions they want to do, and hope that the sum of those contributions adds up to enough reductions to stay below the 2 degrees warming goal, which is already a dangerous level of warming. Yet as Bangladeshi negotiator Quamrul Chowdury pointed out early this week, there’s a flaw to this plan: “What happens if the sum of all the contributions doesn’t keep us under 2 degrees?”

The talks in Warsaw at the end of 2013 mandated Parties to “further elaborate elements of a draft text” at the session in Bonn this week, meaning that many observers and developing countries expected we would begin dealing with text between now and the next COP in Lima at the end of the year.

With that in mind, the ADP met this week almost 2 years into its work, free from the burden of electing co-chairs or agreeing on an agenda. And yet it is nearly universally acknowledged (even if only in private for some, like the UNFCCC secretariat) that things are not going in the right direction. The task of getting countries to agree to regulate themselves and each other is close to impossible. For one thing, there is very little trust—how could there be, with revelations confirming that the NSA was spying on everyone at the Copenhagen talks in 2009—and not a lot of political will. Previous years have seen intense bullying—replete with threats of US withdrawing its aid to anyone who opposes it—and all sorts of other dirty tactics such as phone calls to capitals to get negotiators fired. On top of this, add increasing corporate influence over the process, which contributes to the persistence of climate denialism, the distraction and challenge of the global economic crisis, and the rise of anti-environment governments in Canada, Australia, and the UK.

But even with all of the above happenings, the power of institutions and bureaucracies means that the show goes on. In spite of everything going on within its own borders, Ukraine still managed to pull together a submission of views. And so, because this wagon keeps on rolling, talked opened on Monday, and already many developing countries were quite upset - and said so.

Their beef—as so often is the case—was with the co-chairs for their management of the process. Basically, the co-chairs scheduled talks as “open-ended consultations” (in too small a room) which, in spite of their pleas for specificity, resulted in somewhat of a talking shop, with countries giving general and vague statements that were entirely predictable: the developed countries with a feigned sense of urgency, the developing countries with a furious sense of desperation.That the statements and positions are entirely predictable is because they have been largely repeated for around twenty years.

The developed world has done very little to reduce its own emissions or change unsustainable consumption and production patterns. Despite what the PR machines say, the donors of the developed world (“annex-2” in UNFCCC parlance) have mobilized only the tiniest fraction of the finance and technology they promised to, and even then it turned out to be redirected aid money or loans. Meanwhile, in large swathes of the developing world—including in the so called “emerging economies”—governments still struggle to provide for the basic needs of their populations. The World Bank loans, pushed out the door and pocketed by dictators, are still being repaid by the people. At the risk of stating the painfully obvious: there is much more underpinning these negotiations than the top-line messages suggest, and the imbalance of power within them, as exemplified by the history of the Kyoto Protocol, do not lend themselves to a fully open, innovative, problem-solving approach. Such dynamics lend themselves to developing countries digging their heels in, growing somewhat paranoid, while the large and well-resourced delegations of the developed world, along with their think tanks and Southern front groups, manipulate the media and pile the pressure on. This tension erupted in the final days of Durban —the result was the ADP, a product of many years of build-up.

Since Monday the pushback has been coming thick and fast, and the exchanges between the co-chairs and Parties has at times verged on hostile (for diplomatic standards). Ignoring the appeals for a “contact group” to be formed, the co-chairs from Trinidad and Tobago and the EU pushed on with the open consultations. Nauru spoke first to say that the process was wrong—they’d begun with the “adaptation” element, but apparently Nauru was notified only half an hour beforehand. Cuba, no stranger to exclusion from the international community, didn’t like the smaller room because not all countries could sit at the table. When they did get to more substantive matters, the old divides remained in new arguments. Now the developed countries want “nationally determined contributions” to consist only of mitigation efforts. Given that everyone has to make a “contribution,” this would mean asking the poorest countries on earth, who use and have always used a miniscule sliver of the world’s energy supply, to reduce their (almost non-existent) emissions. Many developing countries want activities under all of the “elements” mandated by the Durban decision—building capacity at home and especially planning and implementing adaptation projects—to count as part of their contributions.

Even ignoring for a moment the injustice of asking all developing countries to “contribute” exclusively via emissions reductions, such action could only ever be undertaken if the money, technology, and capacity was there to do so. As it is not there in many developing countries, or is being used for other priorities such as health, education, infrastructure etc., developed countries have to provide. I’m not just saying that because I think it’s fair: this is all in the Convention. This is all in international environmental law.

The Convention is very clear:

The extent to which developing country Parties will effectively implement their commitments […] will depend on the effective implementation by developed country Parties of their commitments […] related to financial resources and transfer of technology and will take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country Parties.

However that hasn’t really happened , and all throughout this week we’ve been hearing the now familiar refrain from the “Umbrella Group”—New Zealand, Japan, Australia, US—that finance should absolutely not be included in the “contributions.” Why would we set targets, they ask, in order to meet a goal they set for themselves at COP16 in Cancun to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020? The common excuse, a bogus one, is that they cannot budget that far ahead, that they cannot get approval from their national parliaments and congresses. The real reason, of course, is a lack of political will.

Alongside the open-ended consultations, the ADP session this week has also seen a series of technical expert presentations on renewable energy and energy efficiency. The idea was pushed by AOSIS, the Alliance of Small Island States, who are desperate to find solutions to two of the most serious problems they face: climate change and lack of access to energy. The sessions, while a good start, were largely disappointing—basically put on to placate AOSIS—and even included the US attempting to sneak in shale gas as a source of “clean” energy. Almost as bad, the secretariat invited big energy suppliers and the World Bank, who was and is a massive funder of dirty and harmful energy, as presenters. Even the good elements of the presentations—globally funded renewable energy feed in tariffs —have no real way of being made part of the actual negotiations.

As the closing plenaries wrapped up, the UNFCCC secretariat released a press statement saying that the talks to reach a new agreement were progressing well. While I’m not one to give in to pessimism, such statements are wildly optimistic. It’s a long road to Paris, and it seems we’re walking in circles. The next 20 months could yield yet more road-blocks and dead-ends. Yet for all that, a complete collapse seems unthinkable—actually it seems impossible, given what is at stake for the governments of the world (I don’t mean the climate, I mean their reputations). It is therefore very likely that in order to avoid a Copenhagen style “no deal,” and unable to overcome the differences and obstinacy that prevents a good one, the French Presidency will engineer any kind of deal—even a completely useless one. Their diplomatic efforts to avoid the collapse option—which would really show the world how desperate the situation is—are being fully supported by the UN Secretary General, who has decided to convene a “Climate Summit” of his own in New York this September. The idea to give climate change a higher profile is laudable, and France will use it tactically to get ministers and Heads of State familiar with the issues before COP21, but ultimately it is a massive distraction, a highfalutin show for the cameras, and without any agreed authority.

Credit: KAL for The Economist

As we stumble toward Paris, those who have the game rigged have an incentive to make sure everyone else keeps playing. The murmurs in America that Obama can overcome the traditional stalemate of Congress by signing an executive order are repeats of the same murmurs that could be heard ahead of Copenhagen. At best they show the dishonesty of the US delegation’s assertions that Obama has his hands tied at home. At worst, they lead us to believe the lie that Obama will actually act: he is not serious about climate action either domestically or internationally. Most developed world governments are not—and even though governments in the developing world claim to be, they have to deal with the pressing issue of surviving the increasing climate-related disasters before they can fund their own dramatic emissions reductions.

The only thing to hijack the apple cart would be massive, strong mobilization in the months and years to come. Social movements, united with progressive governments, or progressive elements within governments, who also have a mandate to stand up to bullying and defend red lines: if these are in chorus, and the red lines being defended are people’s red lines, we can get the best of a bad situation. In Warsaw we said “Volveremos”—we will be back. Now that the eternal talking is back, we need to live up to this promise.

Featured Image Credit: IISD