In new round of climate talks, Russia bites back

The annual mid-year session of the climate change negotiations organised by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change ongoing in Bonn, Germany have seen a(nother) round of procedural strife delaying one of the technical bodies from beginning its substantive work. Russia, together with the Ukraine and Belarus, have been insisting on the inclusion of a new agenda item (“Procedural and legal issues relating to decisionmaking by COPs/CMPs”) for the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) before the SBI’s agenda is adopted in full. Others have opposed the introduction of this new item, preferring to subsume this discussion under existing agenda items – and seven negotiating days later, no resolution to the impasse has been reached, with the rest of the SBI agenda thus yet to be adopted and its detailed work yet to be spun-off to smaller groups. (Other mid-session reports on this subject are here (RTCC)here (Adopt a Negotiator) and here (Third World Network).)

UNFCCC SBI 2012 blog screenshot

“Consultations are ongoing”: The UNFCCC website’s status report on the SBI agenda (as of the morning of 11 June 2013)

Russia’s Doha bruising

The trigger for these three countries demanding a debate on the procedure of the COPs stems from the final hours of last December’s COP18 session in Doha, Qatar – where the Qatari conference president, some twenty-four hours after the conference was supposed to have concluded, gavelled through a series of draft decisions in a remarkable two-minute sequence of reading out draft document symbols, proclaiming that he saw no objections from the floor, and then relentlessly bringing his gavel down over and over again to mark the conference’s formal adoption of the decisions – all punctuated by bursts of applause by delegates, incredulous at the breakneck speed of events.

Among these was a decision agreeing a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol – and in its details, a clause limiting the amount of tradeable carbon credits that countries could ‘carryover’ from the first (2008-12) period into the second (2013-2020), a limitation largely aimed at Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, that had a large surplus of these credits as a result from their industrial collapse during the 1990s, for whom this restriction would limit their ability to sell off these credits to other countries. (For the consequences of this decision, see this report). As the COP President bustled through gavelling this decision into adoption, Russian delegates attempted to get his attention to block its adoption: from a few rows behind the Russians, I could see the Russian chief delegate furiously waving and banging his placard on the desk in attempting to bring proceedings to a halt (others in the hall, if they could not see the Russian chief delegate, could certainly hear him), while another raced to the front of the podium, standing directly in front of the COP President to get his attention – all to no avail.

With the decisions adopted, the floor was opened for statements: the Russian chief negotiator spoke about how disappointed he was, struggling to believe that the COP President had not been aware of his attempts to intervene before the gavel was struck. The decision, nonetheless, had been adopted, and the COP President, in response, simply said that Russia’s comments would be reflected in the record of the meeting.

(See the UNFCCC webcast of the final hours of COP18 here, up until 0:03:30. A Russian delegate’s hand and finger is visible at 0:01:50 for about 10 seconds, as the COP President is gavelling through the draft decisions – he had run from his seat to stand directly in front of the COP President and has raised his hand in an attempted objection. Later in the same clip, the Russian chief delegate’s statement is from 0:08:30 to 0:16:30, and is followed by a brief reply by the Qatari COP President)

Russia’s objection at the final COP18 plenary. Photo: IISD Reporting Services

Renewing long-standing questions about procedure

The joint Russian-Ukrainian-Belarussian proposal at the current session is thus their reaction to being run roughshod over by those final COP18 proceedings – still bruised from that experience, they have being willing to hold up proceedings on the rest of the SBI agenda for over half the conference, and preventing these other issues from being discussed.

But the complaint of these three countries does come on the back of a recent trend of what might be described as ‘creative’ procedural conclusions to the COPs, as well as a longer procedural limbo within which the UNFCCC process has functioned without formally agreed rules of procedure. The 2009 Copenhagen conference concluded with the conference “taking note” of a draft produced by some thirty heads-of-state in a closed door meeting; the 2010 Cancun session was presented with a final take-it-or-leave-it draft by the Mexican conference presidency, with delegations given two hours to review it before the final plenary, where Bolivia’s attempt to block adoption was ignored, and its opposition simply footnoted in later documentation; and the 2011 Durban session’s final adoption of the Durban Platform agreement was worked out in a middle-of-the-room “huddle” of a handful of interested (key) parties.

Reflecting these concerns, Martin Khor, Executive Director at the South Centre thinktank, in a pre-Doha essay, wrote that:

“The recent COPs also show that various procedures and processes have been used to push through important decisions and documents which would have been opposed successfully by many developing countries if normal participatory processes of the UNFCCC and the UN in general had been followed. The attempt to force through a document emanating from closed-door small meetings failed in Copenhagen. New methods used in Cancun and in Durban succeeded in having decisions and documents adopted by the COP and the CMP. Too much power and authority have in practice been accumulated by the officials of the country that hosts the COP. Instead of being a host and provider of facilities in a venue of meetings, the host country has become prime determinant of process and substance through the new practice of providing the President with draft texts and then having them adopted.”

The difference between past COPs and the most recent one may just be that Russia is willing to push back – and push back forcefully.

The COP host: international politics intervening?

Perhaps more than in other multilateral negotiating processes, the actions of the COP President have come to bear considerably on the course and progress of the conference, rather than just receiving the stamp of prestige from hosting a big international summit. The annual rotation of the COP from country to country (next up: Poland) means that norms and processes have a certain flexibility in how the presidency chairs the conduct of the conference – and introduces a certain amount of luck and contingency into the process.

In this way, the SBI agenda disputes of the first week of this session have re-opened a question that I think is more than academic in considering how the UNFCCC process produces its outcomes – do wider geopolitics introduce themselves into the specific ebb and flow of the climate negotiations? Specifically, is there anything unique about the Qatari COP18 presidency’s willingness to gavel a decision past the objections of what is still one of the world’s most powerful countries?

At that final COP18 session, after the Russian chief delegate had voiced his opposition to the COP President ignoring his requests for the floor, the COP President responded with this:

I value very highly the warm relations between my country and the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and Belarusia, and their contribution to global climate protection, it is a very notable one. I must repeat, it was my sense that the decision adopted today reflects the will of the Parties to mark the result of Doha.”

Are these the nice words of diplomatic rhetoric? Or a two-fingered salute instead? The state of relations between Russia and Qatar are, of course, anything but warm, most especially over the Syrian civil war. On this subject, the two countries have been backing the opposing protagonists (the Assad government and Islamist rebels respectively) with arms and money, frequently locking horns in UN debates on Syria, and have also had diplomatic tiffs on other subjects.

It brings to mind a counterfactual question about whether a country less confident than Qatar in its wider positioning in international affairs would have been willing to so brazenly ignore the objections of one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Can one imagine last year’s conference hosts, South Africa, being as willing to take such a step to knowingly antagonize Russia? Could South Korea, that had been locked in a drawn-out bidding war with Qatar to host COP18, have taken similar action? Some wondered in the wake of COP18 that while it was one thing to ignore Bolivia in 2010, it was another thing altogether to ignore Russia – and thus with this precedent, perhaps other major emitters such as the US or China might find themselves in the same position in the future, drowned out by applause and the relentless slamming of the gavel over their objections. But any such prospect depends too on who the COP hosts are, and their own willingness to take such a step – factors that are absolutely not constant and perhaps require a rather fortuitous alignment of the stars.

The UNFCCC process often seems an insular one, unconnected to wider international politics, perhaps apart from the odd hint of conditional aid here and there. Delegates are often drawn predominantly from environment ministries, with lesser representation from foreign ministries. The world that seems to matter and resonate within the conference corridors is one of natural disasters, technology development, and financial mechanisms. COP18, and its delayed fallout at SB38, may just have provided a reminder of the broader context and the deeper international political rivalries that lie just beneath the surface.

Plus ca change?

Finally, though, a vignette from the past. Shortly after COP18, in the course of my own research work, I came across this description of COP2’s adoption of the Geneva Declaration. While this Declaration had only a political statement by ministers, had been deeply contested at that negotiating session. Perhaps some things don’t change all that much.

“While there were some rumours that the Russian delegation vividly tried to raise a point of order so as to prevent the Declaration being accepted, these attempts were swept away by the sustained applause of the great majority of delegations supporting the procedure proposed by the President. When the plenary calmed down again, the opponents of the Declaration were left with commenting on the result, but could not hinder any longer the majority of Parties to express their will”. (Sebastian Oberthur, 1996, “The Second Conference of Parties”, Environmental Policy and Law 26(5), p. 200)

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