The past as present on climate change (Notes from the Bangkok climate talks)

Last week’s session of the UN climate change negotiations that I attended in Bangkok, Thailand, certainly didn’t make for very good headlines: “feud”, “stall”, “division”, “bickering” and “deadlock” being common descriptions. The disdain of one report is barely hidden in its opening lines:

“Nineteen years after the world started to take climate change seriously, delegates from around the globe spent five days talking about what they will talk about at a year-end conference in South Africa. They agreed to talk about their opposing viewpoints”

It certainly didn’t seem like a very productive use of time when the agenda over what to actually negotiate about wasn’t agreed until the last evening (particularly for the technical experts who had little to do but twiddle thumbs in the meantime). But 3 days of deadlock over the meeting agenda is perhaps unsurprising because this divergence of views is as much about what to do now, as it is about what road it is that has been travelled on to get here. And where we’ve come from tells us quite a bit about where we are going, or want to go.

In this specific part of the negotiating process (the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action; AWG-LCA), competing draft agendas took their starting points from two related, but different places. One draft, prepared by the chair, focused on the elements of what was agreed to at last December’s Cancun summit; the other, prepared by the G77 and China coalition, focused more expansively on the areas set out in the agreement made at the 2007 Bali conference (which was intended to culminate at the 2009 Copenhagen conference).

This debate about history (i.e. are we taking our lead from Cancun or Bali) sets out different tasks to address. An agenda based on Cancun turns to various questions of how to design new institutions for adaptation support and technology, and how to ensure some common framework for monitoring and keeping track of global mitigation actions. But an agenda that uses the original Bali point of reference puts priority on what actions developed countries are going to be taken to bring down their greenhouse gas emissions, as well as ‘enhanced’ action on adaptation and finance issues.

Perhaps a historical footnote to current negotiations lies some 15 years ago, in the negotiations that resulted in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. That only reached a climax at that particular point in time, because the task to agree on a legal instrument that included quantified emission reduction commitments had been agreed to at the 1995 Berlin conference, in what became known as the Berlin Mandate. The Mandate set out that the focus of negotiations would be on the emission reduction commitments of developed countries; and over the next two years, as the USA tried to force a discussion on the commitments of developing countries, this was resolutely resisted by developing countries who pointed to the Mandate’s limited scope.

Imperfect as any historical analogy might be, there are parallels here in the justifications that developing countries present for continuing to turn to the Bali agreement as the mandate for the current set of negotiations: “We are negotiating about x, and x only, because we agreed to this a few years ago.” The fear expressed by developing countries is that the larger vision of Bali will be subsumed by the specifics of Cancun, and that the latter will be the ‘ceiling’ to collective global action on climate change. The extent to which the recent Cancun Agreements mesh with the earlier Bali Action Plan is what underlies apparently circular and procedural disagreements on the agenda – resolved in some way by the finessing of diplomatic language on the agenda that was indeed agreed, but which will remain alive for the rest of this year. Watch this space.

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One thought on “The past as present on climate change (Notes from the Bangkok climate talks)

  1. […] the heart of these negotiations about what a global climate change agreement should contain. Like the previous negotiating session in Bangkok, where discussions in the two working groups on a future agreement were also largely consumed by […]

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