‘Seeing no objection it is so decided’, US diplomat Daniel Reifsnyder, chair of the United Nations working group tasked with devising a comprehensive global framework on climate change, announced last week. He registered the decision with an emphatic strike of his gavel, and applause rang out from the floor. An agenda for future sessions had just been agreed by the nations assembled in Bangkok. The meeting soon adjourned and the diplomats left. Yet none of the specifics of the world’s response to climate change were actually considered.
If this sounds bizarre to observers, it seemed just as odd to many participants, too. ‘A debate over an agenda’, acknowledged Tuvalu delegate Ian Fry when the trouble started, ‘seems like the UN in its classic form’.
‘It’s insane’, complained Bolivian ambassador Pablo Solon just hours before Reifsnyder’s gavel came down. ‘We’re losing time’.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Once the agenda finally passed, the ranks of those ‘disappointed’ in the lack of progress included the African group of nations, the European Union, the least developed countries and Australia (speaking for several advanced economies) among others.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Artur Runge-Metzger, had earlier challenged his counterparts to give confidence to people outside the room that ‘something’ is happening. Frequently, he’d said, the public complained that ‘you’re just going from one negotiation to the other, you just write words on paper’. Now, he admitted, the view from the outside world was that ‘These buggers can’t even agree on an agenda’.
So how did it all end up like this? The story of agenda week – as this latest session of talks is surely doomed to be remembered – says much about the troubles of the UN climate talks and the persistent doubts that the world’s negotiators can craft an effective response to global warming.
Climate diplomats arrived in Bangkok with a brief to build on the widely unanticipated progress of December’s Cancun conference. In Cancun, negotiators had succeeded in incorporating the key provisions of the hastily struck 2009 Copenhagen Accord into the formal UN process. The Cancun Agreements provided for a Technology Mechanism, an Adaptation Committee and other practical measures. The challenge before negotiators now was to agree a comprehensive global deal by the end-of-year meeting in Durban, South Africa.
With the first period of the Kyoto Protocol – the only international agreement obliging developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions – due to expire at the end of 2012, things are getting tight. (In Bangkok, the United States, Japan and Russia all expressed their intent not to participate in a second Kyoto period, while the EU says it is open to participation if major emerging economies take ‘comparable’ emission reduction efforts outside Kyoto.) UN climate head Christiana Figueres said at the start of the week of negotiations that governments had to face the fact that a gap in this effort looked increasingly impossible to avoid.