Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 14 May 2012

Climate talks and dilemmas resume

The inaugural meeting of the Durban Platform takes place in Bonn this week, taking the battle in climate change of concepts and of who needs to do what actions to a new stage.


The global climate change negotiations resume in Bonn today, for the first time since the turbulent annual conference of the parties in Durban last December.

The Bonn talks will be closely watched by the world public, since the climate situation seems to be deteriorating.

There have been heavy rainfalls causing serious floods for example in Pakistan and Thailand, frequent damaging storms in the Philippines and Central and South America, and drought in parts of Africa.

Scientists have linked the higher incidence and intensity of extreme weather events to climate change.

Actions to curb global warming have however been lagging behind, despite the much-publicised frequent negotiations under the UN Climate Change Convention.

As global emissions of carbon dioxide greenhouse gases keep rising, there is a good chance that the average global temperature will rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial revolution level, a threshold that scientists warn will cause serious effects such as sea level rise, flooding, storms, droughts and reduced agricultural yields in many parts of the world.  The present average is about 0.8 degree above the pre-industrial level.

Unfortunately, the lack of adequate pledges to act (especially by the major industrialised countries) is putting the world on track for the global average temperature to rise by 3 to 4 or even 5 degrees within a century, a recipe for catastrophe that threatens the survival of civilisation or even the human species itself.

This is the background to the two-week meeting in Bonn.  Although the science and the events on the ground have been rapidly developing, the politics of reaching agreement on actions has been stuck in a familiar groove: what should developed and developing countries do to curb and cope with climate change?

Can they cooperate to bring about new economic, technological and social patterns so that actions to control climate change do not affect economic and social development?

The Bonn meeting will be quite a milestone, as it will include the inaugural plenary of the new working group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.

It is tasked with coming up with an outcome (either a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force) by 2015, in order to implement agreed climate related actions from 2020.

This new outcome will be under the UN Climate Change Convention, and be applicable to all Parties, according to the decision adopted in Durban.

Partly because the Durban Platform decision was taken at literarily the last hour, with many delegates not having the opportunity to fully digest its meaning, there are differing interpretations of what its key paragraphs mean.

Climate negotiators from the United States, in post-Durban speeches, have stressed the significance of the absence in the text of the terms ‘equity’ and ‘common but differentiated responsibility’.

These terms are prominent in the Convention and have been much used in climate talks over the years by developing countries to argue that rich and poor countries have different obligations to curb global warming, and that the rich also have to help the poor to act through transfers of finance and technology.

According to the US, the absence of these terms means that the equity principle and the “firewall” of different types of actions by developed and developing countries are no longer valid in the new protocol or “agreed outcome” that will emerge in 2015.

Not so, claim a large group of developing countries that include China, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Bolivia.

According to them, the fact that the Durban Platform will be “under the Convention” means that the principles and provisions of the UN Climate Change Convention will apply, and equity and ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ are very prominent in the Convention.

In fact the Indian Environment Minister, in a speech to her Parliament, stressed that equity is at the centre of the Durban Platform.

The equity issue is so hot that a special half-day workshop will be devoted to it at this Bonn session.

Another bone of contention is the term “applicable to all Parties” which appears in the Durban Platform decision. US officials have been arguing that this means there is no longer a difference between what developed and developing countries should do, and that the obligations to reduce emissions should be the same for all countries.

But many developing countries have a different interpretation.  In a recent submission, India argued that this term merely restates the obvious, that any outcome of the Durban Platform negotiations will be applicable to all Parties, just as the Convention or the Kyoto Protocol apply to all Parties.

The term does not signal a dilution of different responsibilities, stressed India.  “Both the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol that are applicable to all Parties authorise and require differentiation between Parties. Universality of application does not translate into uniformity of application.”

In between these two views, the European Union accepts the Convention principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, but argues that responsibilities and capabilities “evolve over time.”   The negotiations should provide for a “spectrum of commitments that ensure the highest mitigation efforts...”

This seems to imply that some developing countries have already evolved to a higher economic stage, and should be required to take on higher responsibilities, as compared to other developing countries.

But this concept of ‘spectrum’ of commitments linked presumably to a spectrum of types of developing countries will open up another complex issue.  Do we categorise countries according to their absolute economic size and total emissions, or on a per capita basis?

Countries like China and India have huge populations and thus large total incomes and emissions.  But in terms of per capita income or emissions, China is just an average developing country while India is very low on the list of all countries.  Where then in this “spectrum” or range should they or other developing countries be placed?

At the heart of the debate is the issue of what constitutes fairness or justice in allocating responsibilities for taking climate actions such as reduction of emissions and the provision of finance and technology.

And this is a crucial issue, because people are more willing to act when there is a shared feeling that everyone has agreed to act in a manner that is fair to all.

The solution as to what constitutes fairness, balance and equity in allocating future actions to curb and cope with climate change was found earlier in the existing Convention and the Kyoto Protocol.  But some countries want to re-write the rules.  Some who joined the Kyoto Protocol have also left or are not willing to make commitments under it.

Whether the rules should be re-written, and if so how so, will be the Gordian Knot of these negotiations.  The talks will be tough.  The world’s future will depend on it.