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

by nathan thanki

At the end of an unseasonably warm week in Bonn, the sun set 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.

In short, the ADP negotiations have not gone well to date.

The “huddle” at COP19 in Warsaw. Photo:

Since the first session they 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.”

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” was settled on as a compromise because certain developed countries did not want to, and never did want to, “commit” to tackling climate change (as pointed out in comments below, we can’t say for certain it was one country over another–they all agreed to this change in the end, and in some ways it could be seen to benefit all major economies even non-A1). Even this week, while the US delegation talked loftily about taking ambitious action, at home Obama is fracking the living daylights out of vast swathes of the country and contemplating passing the Keystone XL pipeline to transport Canada’s tar sands (a carbon “bomb”) to the Gulf oil refineries. The idea behind the “contributions” framing is kind to the United States’ brainchild—a “pledge-and-review” approach whereby Parties 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?”

Surrounding the “contributions” sentence in the Warsaw decision on the ADP (1/CP.19) was the mandate to “further elaborate elements of a draft text” at this session, meaning that many observers and developing countries expected we would begin dealing with text between now and the next COP in Lima this December. By UNFCCC rules, the final text for agreement has to be tabled 6 months before being signed—so while the likes of Avaaz tell their keyboard warriors that December 2015 is a make or break moment, the deadline is actually June 2015. It’s hard to imagine the rules not being bent slightly to allow some degree of refinement, but the agreement should be more or less there.

When will we get serious emissions reductions?

With that in mind, the ADP met this week, free from the burden of electing co-chairs or agreeing on an agenda. It is almost two years into its work. 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, we find ourselves in one of the more soulless quarters of Bonn… When the session opened on Monday, a lot of developing countries were quite upset and said so. Their beef was with the co-chairs for their management of the process. As mentioned, the ADP is prone to procedural fights, which seem to be stupid, and are, but which really reflect the core concerns of countries. 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.

N.B. The talks are about more than climate change

That the statements and positions are entirely predictable is because they have been largely repeated for around twenty years. This lends support to the dismissive attitude of “governments never get anything right” which drove a lot of good, committed people out of the process, but saying that only masks the fundamental reasons for failure to launch. 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 and going on with 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 and 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—it wasn’t clear what topics they’d be discussing each day. 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 down 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. It has long been a concern of some civil society groups that the developed country Parties were building a “mitigation only” regime, which they would entice or bully the developing countries into before engineering another “great escape” of their own—as they’ve done with their Kyoto Protocol commitments.

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 the resources are not there in many developing countries, or are being used for other priorities such as health, education, infrastructure etc., the 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. The political will is so stymied that the co-chairs in fact grouped all three of the Durban “elements” that deal with the provision of the means of implementation (finance, technology transfer, and capacity building) as one cluster. This upset most of the developing countries, who repeatedly raised the issue in their interventions throughout the week. Philippines negotiator Bernarditas, who is a thorn in the side of the developed country Parties, stated the resulting effects of this lack of political will: there can be no enhanced action without support. The “Environmental Integrity Group,” and odd grouping of developed and developing countries, did agree with her, but introduced the idea, popular with developed countries, that the donor base should be expanded to include the emerging economies. Again, the Convention is very clear about who is obliged to commit finance (though of course anyone can if they wish): only Parties in annex-2. However, here in Bonn those countries repeatedly demanded that they be allowed to pass off that responsibility to the private sector—accountable to nobody but their shareholders.

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.

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 disaster 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 deliver on this promise.

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