Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 12 April 2010

Climate talks resume, future uncertain

After the chaotic ending of the Copenhagen conference, the United Nations' climate negotiations resumed in Bonn last week, with differences over how to proceed towards a global deal.


Governments have begun picking up the pieces from the chaotic conclusion of the Copenhagen conference last December and to re-ignite negotiations towards a global climate deal.  But it is not an easy task.

Negotiations started again at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change last week in Bonn.  It was the first meeting since Copenhagen, and the three days in Bonn (9-11 April) was spent discussing how to proceed this year.

The new deadline for completing the talks is supposed to be this December, at the next conference of the UNFCCC in Cancun, Mexico.

Strangely, it is the developing countries that are pressing to hold as many meetings as possible before Cancun, so that a global deal can be completed in December but the developed countries have been reluctant and have signalled that a deal cannot be done by then.

This is a reversal from the latter's position last year when they were adamant that there must be a deal by the end of 2009, otherwise there will be grave consequences for the world's survival.

It is hard to find anyone who can properly explain this great turnaround on deadlines from deadly urgency to laid-back complacency.  Most likely it is the “elephant in the room”, the gloomy fact that the United States Congress is unlikely to pass a bill this year that commits the country to targets to cut its Greenhouse Gas emissions.

The US President Barrack Obama and the US Congress have just gone through a bruising battle to adopt a domestic health bill.  They are now focusing on financial re-regulation. It will take time before the politicians go through another painful process to consider a climate-related bill.

And without the US on board, other developed countries do not want to make final commitments at the UNFCCC on how much they themselves will cut their emissions.

So in reality the world is “waiting for America”, and it can be a long wait, as at the World Trade Organisation's Doha negotiations, at which the rest of the world is waiting for the US to get its act together.

At the Bonn meeting last week, the issue of the US did not surface in the open but was part of the corridor talk.   It may explain why the developed countries are dragging their feet.

The meeting of the UNFCCC's group on long-term cooperative action (LCA) saw tensions between the developed countries led by the United States which wanted to give a prominent role to the Copenhagen Accord, and many developing countries that wanted the future negotiations to be based on the text that had been worked on by the group for the past two years.

The Accord, a three-page document, was the result of a side meeting in Copenhagen between about 25 political leaders that had not been announced to the Convention's membership, and was not adopted but only taken note of.  The Convention however did adopt the text of the LCA that contains points of agreement as well as options to choose from in areas where there is not yet agreement.

The US in particular wants the Accord to be given at least equal prominence to the LCA text  when countries negotiate the global deal. They are supported by other developed countries and  some developing countries.

However most developing countries, even some that had associated with the Accord (like China, India, Brazil), want the LCA text to be the basis for negotiations.  They argued that this was the text formally adopted by all in Copenhagen and must therefore be worked on, and those advocating the Accord are free to propose the injection of parts of that document into the  relevant sections of the LCA text as options to be considered by the group.

This may seem to be wrangling over procedures, but in fact it is a fight over the contents of what will be in a final climate deal.

The US made a case that the Accord resulted from an amazing effort by heads of states and contained many new elements that had eluded the negotiators.  It wanted the Chairman of the group to write up a new text based on this Accord as well as the LCA text.

Many developing countries objected, pointing out that the Accord had not been agreed to by all members at Copenhagen, and that those who wanted to do so could themselves point out how they wanted to incorporate elements of the Accord into the LCA text.

Many countries also criticised the undemocratic process in which only a few selected political leaders had been selected to take part in a secretive meeting that produced the Accord.  This was not in accordance with the open and democratic procedures of the United Nations.

The Africa Group, represented by Democratic Republic of Congo, told the Bonn meeting: “We saw the sidelining of the multilateral process, the emergence of a secret text put together by a selected few that later became known as the Copenhagen Accord and the blatant attempt to discard the Kyoto Protocol. These mistakes fundamentally broke the trust that is very necessary for any partnership that aspires to be successful and enduring to work.”

For the developing countries, it was the deviation from the UN procedures that caused the failure of Copenhagen, and not the UN procedures themselves.  And the group affirmed that the transparent, participatory and legitimate UN procedures should continue to be used in the future.

Bolivia's Ambassador Pablo Solon also pointed out that the crisis in the present talks is caused by the very low commitments to cut emissions by developed countries. It said that after the Copenhagen Accord, the developed countries pledged to reduce their emissions by only 13-17 per cent by 2020 from 1990 levels, when what is required is a cut of over 40%.

Solon, citing a European Commission report, said the pledges are even worse than 13-17% reduction if loopholes are taken into account.  In that case, the pledges would constitute a rise in emissions by 2.6% (in the worst scenario) or a cut by 2% (in the best scenario).   Thus the Copenhagen Accord would not leave us in a better situation.

The Bolivian statement in effect put in the open the other big “elephant in the room” -- the  dismal pledges under the Accord.  Some scientists tracking the pledges have concluded that they are pointing towards a temperature rise of 3 to 4 degrees celsius, when the world needs to limit global warming to below 1.5 or 2 degrees to avoid catastrophic effects.

The UNFCCC's working groups will meet again at the end of May.