Climate Justice & Sustainability

Grievous mistakes and a lack of process: are the climate negotiations delusional?

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At the most recent negotiations in Bonn, Germany, I could see two key delusions: the idea that an effective agreement can be made without a change to the rules; and that the equity of current generations can be prioritised over the well-being of future ones. We could add in the developing-developed divide and the idea that the US will ratify an international treaty, but I’ll stick to two for now.

Process, and the lack thereof

The first delusion is that we can have an effective agreement in 2015 without changing any of our processes. Actually, the negotiations don’t have any official rules of procedure. The adoption of official rules was vetoed over 20 years ago by Saudi Arabia. They did so to ensure that voting was not adopted and they could maintain a veto over the climate talks. Consensus is now used as an informal and undefined term in the absence of voting.

This original sin has never been rectified and has now come back to haunt us. In Bonn the negotiations on implementation were stalled for the entire two weeks. Russia used its veto to stop the talks from ever beginning and the next summit in Warsaw suddenly looks much more daunting.

Oleg Shamanov (left) tries to intervene in the approval of the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period at the Doha climate talks in 2012 (Source: Flickr/UNFCCC)
Oleg Shamanov (left) tries to intervene in the approval of the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period at the Doha climate talks in 2012 (Source: Flickr/UNFCCC via RTCC)

Russia held the negotiations hostage, demanding a discussion on rules and decision-making after its objections were embarrassingly ignored during the final declaration at the climate summit in Doha last year in order to create a false consensus. While Russia clearly does not have pure motives, it did make some valid points at the negotiations. It is simply unacceptable that we have gone this long without any adopted rules. Consensus had proved to be a nice idea in theory, but a failure in practice. Now Russia is using the process to highlight its own faults.

As Tuvalu comically stated in the final plenary, it is “crashing the car to prove the seatbelts don’t work.”

Yet, some countries do not want to discuss voting because they benefit from the agonisingly slow pace of the current negotiations. But, what is worse is that even civil society appears to have fallen prey to this delusion. The fiasco with Russia provided the perfect opportunity to endorse majority voting and publicly demand negotiators to finally adopt official rules. This was squandered as civil society groups chose not to do so. Instead we heard the usual generic calls for urgency.

Rules may not be sexy, but they guide and facilitate our actions. Without a change in the convention it is highly unlikely that we will reach an effective agreement in 2015.

It’s time for civil society to make a stand and take a strong public position on voting. Yes, it may seem like we have more pressing issues, but it is truly a delusion to not prioritise an issue which has been undermining efforts for 20 years. This has never been more obvious than now after the actions of Russia.

Equity without intergenerational equity

The second delusion is that we can talk about equity and moral principles while avoiding the idea of intergenerational equity. Unfortunately this concept has been completely avoided for the past year of negotiations on the 2015 agreement.

This is a grievous mistake.

The next climate agreement must directly recognise the rights of future generations and it must define ‘dangerous’ climate change as any impacts that violate these rights. Development and the pursuit of equity now is pointless if it condemns future generations to a 3 degree or warmer world.

Luckily, YOUNGO (the Youth Constituency of the UNFCCC) is helping the negotiations to overcome this delusion.

Youth at the most recent negotiations championed the notion of intergenerational equity. It became an idea that drew youth together and breathed life into their activities.

At Bonn, almost every action and piece of lobbying work by YOUNGO focused on intergenerational equity. There were demonstrations asking negotiators to put intergenerational equity on the table, numerous meetings with negotiators and even a press conference with media. It was a beautiful symphony of effort played around one central chord.

Young people hold a press conference on intergenerational equity. Source: UKYCC

And it worked.

At the closing session of negotiations two separate blocs of countries declared the importance of intergenerational equity and the need to address this principle. Parties even put forward the idea at a side event on equity.

YOUNGO has now organised a group of countries who are willing to put intergenerational equity on the table and in the text. This new ‘Friends of the Future’ group includes a number of developing and developed countries from South America, Europe and the Middle East. We will now be working with the group to help establish an international discussion around intergenerational equity at COP19.

Through unity and the simple power of an idea youth are helping overcome one of the delusions of climate negotiations. To me Bonn is a reminder that while we are surrounded by persistent mistakes from the past, even the most deeply held delusions can be broken.

Featured Image Credit: IISD via WWF