Climate Justice & Sustainability

The Calm before the Storm: The Latest Round of United Nations Climate Change Negotiations

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Luke Kemp returns with a report on the latest round of the UN climate talks; this week the second meeting of the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform (ADP) which is designed to create a replacement to the Kyoto Protocol as the international climate change agreement. As a sense of calm descends over the talks born out of procrastination, Luke asks “are the climate negotiations reaching a tipping point towards chaos or a new order?”

The halls are scattered with groups and pairs conversing. The plenary is half empty. Some delegates are almost falling asleep out of boredom. Civil society meetings are silent as there is no news to be debated. It is quiet. A little bit too quiet.

This was the second session of the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform (ADP). Considering the session began with a declaration about urgency, the progression of negotiations towards the 2015 agreement seemed eerily relaxed. This did provide some good points. A calm and friendly atmosphere prevailed in most talks and some developing country delegates remarked that this was the first time they were actually able to keep up with their work.

This state of affairs is unlikely to last long. Nor was it the product of a new spirit of cooperation. The latest session was really one of procrastination.

Statements by countries simply repeated what their written submissions had said. Countries like Australia and the US spoke about the benefits of a bottom-up system where countries can determine their own targets. The most vulnerable countries called for a top-down system to ensure that mitigation was in line with the science. Few fielded any actual tangible ideas or proposals.

One exception was the proposal raised by Brazil on the final day. It was a top-down model where emissions cuts are determined by how much countries have historically contributed to global temperature rise. While it was encouraging to see someone putting forward a concrete idea, it is unlikely to go far. The same model was pushed for during negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol and rejected.

The underlying issues were largely left untouched. But they are likely to fester under the surface until a later time, and unfortunately the negotiations on the next climate agreement have no shortage of challenges. New problems and old ones, arisen from their graves, have combined to create the conditions for a perfect storm.

Participation is the foremost of new problems. Parties seemed to have mistaken their mandate to develop an outcome ‘applicable to all’ to mean the participation of all states. During the session, New Zealand highlighted that there was a tension between having such participation while creating an ambitious treaty with strong compliance. A 2015 agreement will likely be watered down significantly to achieve complete participation. One panellist during a workshop directly stated that surely no-one expects the US to be able to ratify a global climate treaty. The US is notorious for being unable to ratify international agreements, including the Kyoto Protocol. Yet parties have seemingly ignored such statements and continued the ADP talks with broad, general discussions about universal participation. This isn’t the only problem.

The Group of 77 (G-77) - the main negotiating bloc of developed countries- is slowly beginning to fragment. Oil producing nations and large emerging economies such as China and India are stubbornly insisting that the original application of the principles of the climate convention should remain unchanged. They would love to see the same annex system used by the Kyoto Protocol continue. This would allow their development to go unfettered, but would be a disaster for the climate.

In contrast the least developed countries and a number of progressive Latin American countries are pushing for equity and ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ to be interpreted as all countries having to take some form of legally binding mitigation efforts. While the plenary was relaxed, the G-77 meetings were not and often went on for two hours or more. The group is clearly divided and it’s getting worse.

While the disintegration of the G-77 would ultimately be a good thing, it will undoubtedly bring turmoil to negotiations.

Asides from this, the parties made little progress on defining ‘equity’ in the 2015 agreement. Proposals for an equitable agreement can be traced back to COP15 where there was some political momentum for an agreement based on a per-capita carbon budget. Yet parties are attempting to reinvent the wheel. They only managed to really agree that equity should be based upon some kind of ‘spectrum’ or ‘index’ of different criteria.

On top of this we still have all the same problems left over from COP18. How do we fairly and safely reduce emissions from deforestation, transfer technology, and insure and compensate countries that have been damaged by the impacts of climate change?

None of these problems are likely to solve themselves. The 2015 agreement will require imaginative design and determined diplomacy. Instead parties seem happy to play their same old game of talking around issues and hiding their interests behind bland statements.

Perhaps I’m being a little harsh. The session was designed to be more general and broad in nature. Yet I can’t help but feel that it would be more productive to take the hard topics head on. We should start debating concrete proposals for the actual agreement and not the future programme of work.

Unfortunately negotiators have made careers out of putting off problems. Hell, we’ve operated for twenty years without any official rules of procedure.

The problem is that the next 2015 cannot manage the climate crisis unless the hard issues are tackled. If they are then we could very well be reaching a tipping point in negotiations. The question is then whether talks will fall into chaos or enter a brave a new world.