Seven days in Bangkok

It is embarrassing, I know. My kids should be wearing the T-shirt: ‘My daddy went to Bangkok and all I got was this lousy agenda’. Was it really worth spending an entire week-long UN climate negotiating session, requiring the participation of flown-in delegates from over a hundred nations, just to agree an agenda?

Taken at face value, the answer is: ‘Of course not’. Climate change, unlike perhaps the world trade talks, is not something that can be left unresolved year after year – not if we ever want to stabilise global temperatures, that is. Here is a particularly relevant voice from the Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States:

“We have regrettably spent the entire week negotiating the agenda,” said Ambassador Dessima Williams from Grenada. “This is unacceptable, and especially so for small islands who are running out of time if we are to avoid damage from rising sea levels and other climate change impacts. We cannot go on negotiating for ever if we are to urgently reduce global emissions and avoid the worst impacts.”

Ambassador Williams continued: “To spend so long on procedural issues is extremely frustrating. We made progress at Cancun, but a far more constructive attitude is needed  if further progress is going to be made this year toward achieving an ambitious and legally-binding instrument.”

What is odd however, is that everyone expressed frustration, from all sides. According to an important interview carried by Bloomberg, the US climate envoy Todd Stern (who was not present at the talks) compared the “struggles over the agenda” with “bickering over the shape of the negotiating table”.

This is not really a valid analogy, as a seasoned negotiator like Stern must surely know. The shape of the negotiating table is pretty much irrelevant, but the shape of the agenda is extremely important. Those setting the agenda get to define the trajectory of the climate change talks – and the likely final shape of any resulting regime – over the year ahead and beyond. In my experience as a delegate, countries do not bicker unnecessarily – when apparently trivial issues are fought over (such as, in the final night at Bangkok, a spat between the Brazilians and the Indians over whether point 8 of the agenda should read ‘additional matters’ or ‘additional issues’) there is always something deeper at play.

This deeper controversy at Bangkok revolved around the relative importance accorded to the 2007 ‘Bali Action Plan’ (PDF) agreed at COP13 (COP stands for Convention of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or the UNFCCC) or the decisions known as the ‘Cancun Agreements’ (PDF) which emerged from COP16 last December in the Mexican resort town of Cancun. One party, Bolivia, does not accept the legitimacy of Cancun at all, given that the decisions were gavelled through by the COP President over the single but loud objections of that country’s delegation.

Many other developing countries would prefer less of an emphasis on ‘just getting on with it’, and operationalising some of the practical outcomes from Cancun – such as finance, adaptation, technology transfer and the like – and more on the larger unresolved issues from Bali, in particular the likely shape and ambition of any new treaty emerging from the UNFCCC morass. It is fair to say that the small island states and the ‘progressive’ alliance of the Cartagena Dialogue countries in general favour the practical approach; the idea being that the more we get on with reducing carbon emissions now (without being held up by endless political battles) the more we can build confidence in eventual low-carbon economies which suit everyone, and which are cemented by a fuller legally-binding international regime.

Hanging over all of this, and central to the disputes over the agenda, lies the unavoidable issue of the fate of the Kyoto Protocol. All the Cartagena Dialogue countries, and the entire G77 + China group of developing countries, support a second ‘commitment period’ for Kyoto when the first runs out in 2012. But the clock is ticking, and the next COP in December this year is in reality the absolute last chance to agree a Kyoto second round without there being a gap which could call the entire system into question, and destroy the institutions and carbon accounting methods painstakingly established over a decade of complex negotiations.

What we do with Kyoto – and the eventual ‘legal form’ of a wider regime which, unlike Kyoto, includes a majority of global emissions amongst the participating countries – is the critical blockage in the entire climate change multilateral process, and the truth is that we are not any nearer to finding a way through the logjam today than we were nearly four years ago at Bali. There are some interesting new ideas emerging, however, which might point the way forwards towards a compromise which satisfies both sides – more about those in a later post. In the meantime, expect more of the same at the next round of negotiations, coming up in Bonn in June.

I’ll end with this optimistic thought, however. A total collapse in the process is in almost no-one’s interests, even in terms of short-term politics as well as the long-term security of the biosphere. Even though very wide differences exist between the different negotiating blocs, I did sense in Bangkok a continued willingness to be constructive – even from the likes of Saudia Arabia, Venezuela, Bolivia and the United States, each traditionally quite comfortable in the ‘blocking’ role. In the person of Christiana Figueres, the UNFCCC also has an extremely able and well-respected executive secretary: if anyone can help to speed things up, she can.

One of the more positive elements in Bangkok was the holiding of parallel workshops on the new ‘technology mechanism’ (which seeks to get clean-tech rolled out to developing countries without the capacity or the funding to currently deploy it), and also presentations from both developed and developing countries on their domestic climate mitigation actions. China and India predictably spent a good deal of time emphasising that their actions were ‘voluntary’ and in no way implied ‘commitments’, but the message was clear: developing countries are increasingly beginning to accept their own more positive role in exploiting the opportunities of low-carbon development.

So 2011 is in many ways a crunch year, not least because unless we peak global emissions in very short order there is little chance of staying below 2 degrees, let alone the 1.5 demanded by the most vulnerable countries. It is now or never for Kyoto. In the meantime, many more countries are ‘just getting on with it’ and developing their low-carbon plans because they realise it is in their interests to do so.

Okay, so we spent a week on the agenda; but this is still going to be an interesting year.

© Mark Lynas
« · »