‘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’.
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.
The first two days of the session were devoted to technical discussions on national actions and the Technology Mechanism agreed in Cancun. But when the Long-term Cooperative Action working group met, the talks ended up deadlocked.
The G-77 and China bloc of developing countries objected to the draft agenda for the meeting circulated by the chair. The bloc rejected this agenda as far too narrow because it focused on implementing the specific outcomes of Cancun – e.g. the Adaptation Committee and the Technology Mechanism. The G-77 argued that the chair’s agenda ignored major issues provided for in the 2007 Bali Action Plan, such as increasing the level of rich world ambition and finance for developing countries, as well as other, more specific issues not resolved at Cancun. Bolivia drew applause when it likened this to ‘sending a bucket of water’ to quench a massive fire – far from saving the village, the bucket would distract attention from real solutions.
The G-77 therefore proposed a counter-agenda. This was ‘comprehensive and inclusive’, said India, but it was rejected by the United States, the EU and other developed nations for being nebulous and for unraveling the decisions of Cancun. US negotiator Jonathan Pershing renewed his call for a work programme to ‘lead us…to concrete deliverables, not only for some parties, but for all parties’. The chair set the parties the task of agreeing an agenda that would be ‘like Baby Bear’s porridge: just right’.
According to one participant, talks on the penultimate day to break the impasse were heated. A number of developing nations accused the US chair of improperly colluding with rich nations, raising the controversy of the ‘Danish text’ of 2009. Claudia Salerno Caldera (the Venezuelan envoy who had cut her hand at Copenhagen to illustrate a point) was said to be particularly furious. The language used was ‘not diplomatic’ and consultations on the agenda broke up after midnight without result.
But by the afternoon of the final day, a compromise seemed possible. Dessima Williams, the Grenadan ambassador speaking for the small island states, told reporters that the G-77 bloc had overcome ‘significant (internal) differences’ to ‘strike delicate balances in the language’ of their text. Williams indicated that the G-77 proposal had survived all the other proposals that were put on the table.
As night fell, Pershing arrived to tell reporters that a deal had been reached. ‘This is a funny agenda’, he observed, ‘because it’s not all that specific’. It simply reproduced section titles from the Cancun Agreements, instead of fleshing them out with details of the issues to be discussed. Indeed, he was forced to concede that the situation was ‘less rosy today than…when we came in’.
And so that’s where things stand, with the lowest common denominator proving to be the Cancun Agreements and the attempt by the developed world to focus on specific instruments and processes provided for in Cancun meeting a united front of G-77 opposition.
Still, some managed to welcome the outcome. ‘(There’s) a glimmer of hope for a positive outcome in Durban,’ says Asad Rehman of Friends of the Earth. ‘After the original limited agenda was rejected by developing countries there’s now a broad-based agreement for the talks.’
US climate envoy Todd Stern told a New York audience following the meeting that the United Nations ‘has the potential to be a platform focused mostly on rhetorical thrust and parry, with a thick overlay of accusation and blame’. The Bangkok round of talks could well reinforce this view.
So what now? Talks will continue in June, when negotiators alight in Bonn. But analysts warn that the challenge of preventing runaway climate change is becoming increasingly daunting each year. With an expanded, broader agenda, finding agreement at Durban could be harder. And, as one UN official remarked when the talk about the unusual week turned to Nietzsche, there are ‘very few supermen here’.
Stephen Minas is a China-based journalist who has written widely on Asian affairs, climate change and British and Australian politics. Twitter @StephenMinas