Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 7 April 2008

Contentious issues clouded Bangkok climate talks

Last week Bangkok hosted the first round of the post-Bali climate talks.  Malaysia joined other developing countries to argue that developed countries should meet their existing commitments first, but some of the rich countries were in no mood for that, insisting instead on new ways to cloud the issues.


Old unresolved issues have re-emerged while new complicated issues have just come up to cloud the international talks on how to deal with climate change. 

The controversial issues dogged last week’s Bangkok climate talks under the UN Convention on Climate Change.

It was the first round since the Bali conference last December.  Its task was simply to draw up a time table of work towards key decisions in December 2009. 

In reality the Bangkok meeting fought over substance, like how fast the world should act to curb and cope with climate change and more importantly who should bear the costs and how.

At Bangkok, the developing countries under the Group of 77 and China argued that the first and foremost issue is to get the rich countries to meet their commitment, made 16 years ago, to get finance and technology to the poorer countries, enabling them to act against climate change.

The promised help has not materialized.  Developing countries say they cannot take climate action and at the same time maintain economic development without the assistance.  So they wanted finance and technology to be first on the work agenda.

Malaysia was one of the active developing countries on this line.  “We should focus on implementing existing obligations,” said Dr Lian Kok Fei, Under Secretary at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, at the plenary session.

“It is vital to know how much funding is available for technology transfer and how to ensure the funds reach developing countries, as we have yet to see any progress on finance or technology transfer.”

Malaysia asked for progress on this before we can move other issues that are “far more complex and difficult.”

A full day was spent in Bangkok specifically on finance and technology, but it was obvious the developed countries were not really interested.

The United States, Japan and some others were more keen on soft-pedaling the new commitments they have to make to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions, and to pull developing countries (or at least the “major economies” or “advanced developing countries” among them) into making commitments.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, only developed countries are legally obliged to reduce their emissions, and most developing countries are fighting to keep it that way.

The Bali conference agreed that only “developed countries” (including those like the US that are not in the Kyoto Protocol) have to make a “commitment” to reduce their emissions, while developing countries have to only “take actions” on mitigation in the context of sustainable development.

In Bangkok, the US caused a stir when it said this distinction was still up for discussion, and in any case there is no agreement on what constitutes a “developed” or “developing” country.

The implicit threat is that some of these developed countries will refuse to make a new commitment (for the period after 2012) unless some developing countries join in.  The criteria of choosing which developing countries has not been clarified, although China and India are usually mentioned because they have large emissions in absolute terms. 

But these countries argue that’s because of their population size. Their per capita emissions are still much lower than those of the rich countries, so they should not be picked on.   

Japan sprang a big surprise in the last days of the Bangkok talks by insisting that a “sectoral approach” be considered, which almost torpedoed the talks. There was a lot of confusion, as the Japanese delegation could not explain their proposal in detail. 

But according to some delegations, it seems that Japan wants countries to take on obligations according to sectors (for example, steel, aluminium, transport, energy) by adhering to set standards (for example, of carbon intensity or energy efficiency) or targets (for example, for reducing carbon dioxide emission, etc).

The developing countries were very concerned that this kind of “sectoral approach” opens the door to protectionism.   Firms in developing countries lack up-to-date technology or the same level of finance to upgrade, and so their products tend to be more “polluting” or to have higher carbon intensity.

If sectoral standards and targets are set, then those products that do not meet these could ultimately be blocked out or have extra duties imposed.  Since many developing countries’ products are less environmentally competitive, although they may be more cost competitive, the developing countries would be at a serious disadvantage with this kind of sectoral scheme.      

This, anyway, was the fear of some delegates of what the Japan proposal would lead to.  Suspicions were heightened when Japan insisted on its “sectoral approach” to be the first item to be discussed.  Finally it was agreed that a workshop on this would be held not in June (the next climate meeting) but in the meeting after that, in August.

The US in the meanwhile wanted the mitigation (emission-reduction) issues of what the developed countries are supposed to commit to, and what obligations the developing countries are to have, to be discussed together in the same workshop.

This was initially opposed by developing countries, which wanted the developed countries’ commitments to be settled first.  In the end the US view prevailed, but this workshop will be held only next year.

The Bangkok meeting showed how difficult the issues are, with countries having their vastly different positions and perspectives.  It would be a miracle if the overall talks can end by December next year, as scheduled.

Three more rounds will take place this year, in June, August and December.  And at least four meetings will be held in 2009.