UN climate talks: flashpoints on the road to Cancun

Food & climate change article written on the 09 Oct 2010

War poetry was evoked on the floor of the main plenary at the UN climate negotiations this week. A European Union negotiator reflected upon the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade against Russian artillery in 1854, which French army general Pierre Bosquet famously declared:

C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie (“It’s magnificent, but it’s not war: it’s madness”).

The EU negotiator brought the United Nations gathering to a standstill when he reflected on the week and said: “It’s magnificent, but it’s not negotiation.”

The UN climate talks in Tianjin are coming to an end. This was the last negotiation before the high-level UN climate change summit in Cancun, Mexico, this December. So far the talks have been mixed with only marginal progress. We face several flashpoints as we head rapidly down the road to Cancun.

Negotiations have been stalled in the sessions around the legal framework for the climate treaty. Discussions about proposed amendments to the Kyoto Protocol — some of which would make marked improvements — have been blocked all week.

During the first session, the chair was cut off during his introduction. One after the other several countries, led by China and Brazil, objected to the plans for the negotiating group. They insisted on a narrow interpretation of the mandate for the Kyoto working group — restricted to new mitigation targets — and refused to discuss proposals to amend it. A few countries subsequently challenged these objections, led by Australia, whose negotiator said they were “mystified!” as to why this was happening. Then the same countries objected to these counter objections. And so on.

Unfortunately this trend has continued throughout the week. Yesterday I attended a meeting where the very same set of speeches were being given. Some of the nations claimed that their questions were about process, however, in my opinion these were simply blocking tactics. On and on it went until one negotiator exclaimed: “I am having an existential crisis. What am I doing here?”

It was a very good question.

The essence of this conflict is about what, and who, goes first. China and others want rich countries to commit to greenhouse gas reduction targets before other discussions are held about changes to the Protocol. Conversely, countries such as Australia want the legal framework to be established before they commit to targets bound by that target. Like so many conflicts in these negotiations, both positions have some legitimacy, yet both slow overall progress.

There is also a flashpoint emerging around an issue called MRV — the increasingly used acronym for Measurable, Reportable and Verifiable. In essence, it is about transparency — keeping track of countries greenhouse gas reduction and financing commitments. The real sticking point in MRV is the Verification component (there is another acronym within this called ICA, but I will save you the pain and not explain that). Verification involves international observers being able scrutinise mitigation and financing commitments and reporting.

In short, the international community needs confidence that commitments and actions undertaken by developed and developing countries are being fulfilled. We need to ensure, for example, that money for adaptation for the most vulnerable is, in fact, new and additional.

The “you first” standoff is plaguing these negotiations. Some countries seem to be holding back on a range of issues waiting for others to play their cards first. There is a mistrust that is lingering. Countries are worried they will get caught in an agreement that treats them unfairly and places onerous obligations upon them. And in some cases, countries are seeking to get the upper hand on others, to advantage their economies in the long run.

There is no denying it. There is a competitive element to these UN climate negotiations that hampers progress. Most countries are genuinely trying to balance give and take. Some progress is being made, but the sense of urgency is lacking.

This article was first published in Crikey on 08/08/10