Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday, 22 December 2014

A Christmas break from the climate crisis

The end of year break is most welcomed, after the two-week torturous twists of negotiations on climate change that fortunately ended with a resolution when a collapse looked imminent.


It’s almost Christmas Eve.  For the next ten days or so, many of us will be in “suspension” from the worries of the world, for the Christmas and New Year festivities.

The celebrations and the end-of-year rest will be most welcome.  There are too many woes “out there” which will soon intrude into our lives, once the new year really gets into stride.

Top of the post-Christmas, post-New Year agenda will be the economic situation, with the global and national economies in slowdown mode, and also the hyper-active local political scene, as well as the news of one bombing after another around the world.

Coming back from Peru where I attended the annual United Nations climate conference, after a long series of flights, I am grateful to be home at last, to enjoy the company of family and friends, and the incomparable local food.

Those of us who were at the Lima meeting are still recovering from the two weeks of intense negotiations and the trauma of an almost total collapse of this round of talks that was supposed to be an important step towards a new climate change agreement scheduled to be adopted in Paris in December 2015.

If the Lima talks had ended without a conclusion on its most important issue, the “Durban Platform”, it would have sent a negative signal that the world is unable to come to grips with its most important challenge – tackling runaway climate change.     

At the time the conference was scheduled to close, on 12 December night, many developing countries told the plenary session that they could not accept a resolution that had been prepared by the Co-Chairs of the Durban Platform working group.

They found the draft did not contain what they demanded, and it was skewed in favour of the developed countries. Accepting such a draft would put the developing countries at a serious disadvantage.

Groups that rejected the draft included the Africa Group, the least developed countries, and the like-minded developing countries (LMDCs) whose diverse members include Malaysia, China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Sudan, Mali, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

The Co-Chairs had to concede that their draft could not be passed, and handed the task to the Conference President, Peru’s Environment Minister, Manuel Pulgar Vidal.

It was already 4.00 am on Saturday 13 December.  The conference should have ended on Friday 6.00 pm.

The conference had moved into “extra time”, and with a new referee.  Could the President salvage an agreement which could not be reached after two weeks of fierce contest under the Co-Chairs?

The Minister quickly got into the act on 13 December morning, meeting with all the groups and key countries, with all their different views.

Malaysia was also deeply involved in the negotiations as it is a leading member of the Like Minded Developing Countries which had emerged as a key group holding important ground in the negotiations.

The Malaysian team played a critical role in discussions, and helped formulate compromise text. At times, Malaysia became the spokesman of the group and made a significant impact in the final plenary meetings.

A breakthrough came when a critical demand of the developing countries seemed to be accepted by the President, and more importantly, by the United States.

It was the issue of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, a term that is prominent in the Climate Convention denoting that all countries have to act, but the developed countries have to undertake greater commitments because of their role in creating the climate crisis and of their higher economic status.

Developing countries also have to act, but their actions are to be supported by finance and technology transfer.

This basic tenet of the Convention has been challenged by the US, European Union and other developed nations.   They want to end the “differentiation”, so that developing countries take on similar obligations as the developed nations.  They also want to cut the integral link between the finance they provide and the extent of actions of developing countries.

They obtained an advantage when the terms “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) were conspicuously left out when the decision was adopted in 2011 to launch negotiations (known as the Durban Platform) for the new climate agreement.

Since then, the developing countries have fought hard to get the CBDR term back on the agenda.  

When the final plenary meeting was convened at 11.30 pm on 13 December, delegates found that a paragraph had been added, that the Conference of Parties “underscores its commitment to reaching an ambitious agreement in 2015 that reflects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances.”

This is an important paragraph. It was seen by most developing countries as a victory, although they were not happy with the accompanying phrase “in light of different national circumstances.”  

At the plenary, Malaysia, representing the like-minded developing countries, stated that the inclusion of CBDR and also another paragraph in the preamble “together suggests to us cumulatively that the CBDR principle has been restored and given its rightful place in the Convention and the work we will do in relation to the new agreement.”

A few other demands of the developing countries were also met in the new text. This enabled them to go along with the new decision. The conference ended at 2.00 am on Sunday 14 December, 32 hours after its scheduled end.

In fact, as critics pointed out, there is not much new in the adopted decision, except perhaps that the CBDR principle would be reflected in the 2015 agreement, something that should have been agreed to from the beginning anyway.


This shows how difficult the negotiations will be next year.  If it took two whole weeks to reach consensus on a simple text in Lima, how much more contentious and difficult the negotiations will be for an entire new agreement next year.

The Christmas and New Year break will be needed by everyone involved in the climate issue, just as it is needed by everyone else, each with his or her own problem from which to take “time off”.