Tag Archives: multilateralism

French diplomacy, the Paris Agreement, and the structural power of the COP President

“He got a decent deal and everyone said they liked him”, was ClimateHome’s pithy assessment of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the president of the COP21 climate summit in Paris. Other reports concurred, praising France’s successful management of the final days and hours of the summit to bring COP21 to a close with the adoption of the Paris Agreement.

“Mr Fabius and the formidable French diplomatic machine steered the conference to a successful conclusion”, said the FT, while others highlighted the personal investment of time through the many visits that Fabius had made to China, India and Saudi Arabia to build trust and confidence. Laurence Tubiana, France’s ambassador and envoy for climate change appointed by Fabius to steer the French diplomatic effort, also received a name check, as did France’s network of foreign missions spread throughout the world and their public outreach in the year leading up to COP21.

This due attention to the role of the French chairmanship and presidency of the conference, however, highlights an interesting and curious feature of this UNFCCC intergovernmental negotiating process, where the conference host holds a privileged and pivotal political position in directing the final outcome of the meeting. (This probably seems utterly self-evident and unremarkable to others who follow the process – but which I think is reason to step back for a moment). 

COP21 President Laurent Fabius brings down his green gavel. Photo via 'COP Paris' flickr, public domain.

COP21 President Laurent Fabius brings down his green gavel. Photo via flickr.com/photos/cop21/, public domain.

The authority to propose
In a previous post I wrote about how it is not parties who ultimately ‘hold the pen’ in actually drafting and writing the final outcomes, but the chair. At the annual COP meetings where the most contentious issues are finalised, this task is handed over to the conference host, who is then responsible for producing proposals that serve as final compromises acceptable to all, presented as a package.

The ‘authority to propose’ that the COP President possesses is a distinct form of power – agenda-setting power, to set the terms of the debate. The COP President has the discretion to propose and experiment with the methods of work that influence the character and content of discussions – such as the in-session indabas at COP21, tasking small spin-off groups, or appointing facilitators; or larger scheduling decisions, notably such as front-loading the COP21 Leader’s Event for Paris, as opposed to the previous back-end practice that puts it in sync with the normal high-level ministerial segment. While all parties have, of course, the ability to make proposals at any time, the COP President is endowed with a special legitimacy to do so.

It is, in short, a role of considerable structural importance in understanding the way in which the UNFCCC process delivers its outcomes to govern intergovernmental action on climate change. It is from the COP President where judgements about which pronounced ‘red lines’ are the ones that really matter to induce agreement, where the political effort to broker, cajole (and even coerce) acceptance of an agreement is made, and where the all-important decision on when to bring the final gavel down, and declare a consensus, is made.

None of the three iterations of the draft Paris Agreement presented by the French during the final week were ‘put on the screen’ for a line-by-line resolution of brackets and options. Instead, after comments aired and further revisions suggested by parties, returned to the black box of the French presidency to make the judgement about what to change, and presented afresh for further rinse-and-repeating.

This method of work is, for better or worse, the current social practice, part and parcel of the negotiating culture of the UNFCCC process. Indeed, the intervention of the COP President in making that compromise proposal is anticipated at the outset, leaving countries often unwilling to budge from their positions in the ‘technical’ preparatory work. Unlike many other travelling multilateral conferences that journey beyond the seats of their secretariats, the COP Presidency is anything but a ceremonial role, requiring a considerable political investment by the host country.

A “Proposal by the President”


Deep pockets
And yet, at the same time, this pivotal political role is one for which the first criteria is a logistical one: whether that country can comfortably host a conference of 10,000+ attendees (as in ‘normal’ recent years), or more like 30,000+ for marquee years such as 2015. The UNFCCC secretariat estimates the cost of hosting a COP meeting at €35-150 million, which is entirely borne by the host country. France’s provisional budget for COP21 was €187m, which will have surely further increased with additional security measures after the November 13 attacks. Peru, the host of the COP20 meeting in Lima, needed a €5m contribution from the EU to host the meeting.

This logistical prerequisite rules out a vast number of countries from assuming the political leadership role of the COP President – certainly, at a minimum, no least developed country and most small island states. The result is that that moderately deep pockets, probably of at least being a middle-income country, are required to host the COP in order to be able to exercise that political, agenda-setting discretion on what kind of agreement to propose. There is a quite profound inequality of opportunity going on here.

From working group chair to COP President
It is worth dwelling on this misfit between logistical capability and political opportunity for a couple of reasons. The first is that this is not a element of the UNFCCC process that has always been around, but part of its evolution at some point in the past 15 years of negotiations. In reflecting on the Paris Agreement’s significance, it is notable that in the agreement of its predecessor, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Japanese hosts of the conference were broadly absent from the cut-and-thrust final phase of negotiations. Instead, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Berlin Mandate was chaired throughout its entire 1995-1997 lifespan by Raul Estrada-Oyuela of Argentina, and whose judgement and nerve in gavelling through agreement of key areas of contention receives regular mention in the academic literature

Similarly, the Framework Convention on Climate Change itself was agreed at the final meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in May 1992, such that the document was closed in advance of the Rio Earth Summit itself. The INC had been presided over throughout only by Jean Ripert of France, with no conference ‘host’ to turn to, as the INC, had been generally hosted at various UN conference hubs.

By contrast, after handing over their working document mid-way through COP21 that they had shepherded through four-and-a-half negotiating meetings in 2015, the two co-chairs of the Durban Platform AWG, Ahmed Djoghlaf and Dan Reifsnyder, the final pair in the merry-go-round of ADP co-chairs, were largely absent from the podium and public eye.

At some point in the past 15 years, there has been a distinct transfer of authority from the working group chairman to the COP President.

Intergovernmental arrangements
The second is that this dual-role of both logistical host and political broker is up for discussion in the next couple of years, recognising the intensive demands of hosting the COP. Under the jargon-banner of ‘intergovernmental arrangements’, a slow-burning SBI discussion on the organisation of the COP that has been going for the past few years will now look to be more intensively addressed, following the shift into an ‘implementation’ phase of work as opposed to full-blown political negotiations culminating in the Paris Agreement.

(This segment of discussions is also looking at when the COP President is elected, a procedure normally undertaken at the beginning of the COP. This election means, however, that the incoming COP President actually has no formal role in the meetings preceding the COP – as in all of 2015 up to the beginning of COP21 for France – when a lot of the political expectations and potential areas of compromise are actually being socialised).

One of the more interesting possibilities being mooted (another idea is a shift to biennial rather than annual COPs) is to divorce the hosting responsibilities from the political position of the COP presidency. This would see COPs being rotated between host countries and the UNFCCC’s conference facilities in Bonn, Germany – which would allow for a country to take on the role of the COP President without the commensurate logistical demands. (see para.38-44 of this SBI42 document). Could one of the ‘particularly vulnerable’ small countries thus find themselves holding the pen and being responsible for the gavel, hitherto an impossibility?

(In fact, this has happened twice before, inadvertently – COP2 was supposed to be hosted by Uruguay (21/CP.1), but it later withdrew and Zimbabwe served as the president for COP2, which was convened in Geneva; Jordan initially offered to host COP5 in 1999, but also later withdrew (see para.12 of the SBI10 report), and Poland served as the president for COP5, which was convened in Bonn).

The ADP is dead, long live the APA
In the meantime, until a decision is made, the travelling COP continues, on to Marrakesh in November 2016, and the Asia-Pacific the following year. The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform will now be replaced by the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement, in all likelihood with a protracted argument over chairing arrangements similar to that experienced by the ADP at its first session in June 2012. These chairs will guide further tricky details that still need to be agreed on (set out in 1/CP.21) to be able to implement the Paris Agreement when it enters into force. The real hotseat, however, to broker agreement and maintain momentum on climate action, will continue to be that of the COP Presidency. And to take on that role, first, host the COP.

Tagged , , , ,

Notes from the climate talks: A party-driven, not party-written, process

One of the mantras of the UNFCCC universe is that the negotiating process should be “party-driven”, reflecting the primary role that the State Parties to the climate convention should have in shaping its outcomes. While this might seem obvious at first glance, much of this insistence arises from the experience of the 2009 Copenhagen conference, where closed-door meetings of a limited number of countries gave rise to criticism that the negotiating process that was far from transparent, inclusive, and genuinely multilateral, with the result that many countries did not feel that they ‘owned’ the negotiating outcomes. Over the four-year course of the Durban Platform (ADP) discussions intended to conclude at this December’s Paris COP21 conference, this ‘party-driven’ notion has been elaborated into a troika of principles on the conduct of the process: that the “process is Party-driven”; “built upon inputs from Parties”; and “that any outputs of the process will reflect such inputs from Parties.”

But while the ‘party-driven’-ness of the UNFCCC process is now a common refrain, what it doesn’t seem to imply is that the negotiating documents are necessarily ‘party-written’.

Instead, the dynamic that seems to be at work is a heavy reliance on the hand of the chairs and facilitators to do a lot of the actual drafting in cobbling paragraphs together: the co-chairs produce a draft document, hear views and comments on this draft, then go back and make changes based on these comments, then produce a revised draft. Rinse and repeat until a draft acceptable to all is reached (on the inevitable Saturday after the scheduled Friday close of the conference).

Tracing the stages of the COP decision on the Durban Platform agreed at last year’s COP20 session in Lima illustrates this, as shown below. (A similar pattern is at work in previous years too.)

Drafting the Lima Call for Climate Action (1/CP.20)

Draft version

Date released



Pre-sessional draft












Presidential proposal, adopted as the Lima Call for Climate Action

There are a few things about this sequence that highlight interesting aspects of the negotiating process.

The first is that the judgement of the co-chairs becomes critical, in trying to produce a draft that contains an acceptable balance to all across all the proposed outcomes as a package. The term ‘landing zone’ is often used to describe the zone of agreement, but it is the co-chairs who set where the initial ‘touchdown’ point for ‘landing’ the draft is. There is a certain amount of space within which countries’ so-called ‘red-lines’ are respected (and seen to be respected), and once the co-chairs have a mandate from countries to produce a draft, as individual agents they have a tremendous amount of discretion, despite the best efforts of their principals (the countries) to place conditions and qualifies on the expected draft document.

But the co-chairs have this role on them because countries, left to their own devices, struggle to reach that compromise on their own. Discussions on the different thematic areas are necessarily fragmented, with different sections of the text being addressed simultaneously or in different rooms during breakout (or spin-off) meetings, and countries will be and have been reluctant to make compromises in one area of the text if they do not know or feel that reciprocal compromises are being made in other areas. The only way, it seems, to edge towards that landing zone is in the ‘big bang’ manner of having the co-chairs produce a single effort at compromise, so that countries can look at the document as a package in order to see that compromises have indeed been made across the whole document, where achieving only their second, third, or fourth-preferred options on some issues is balanced against realising some first preferences on other issues.

The second is that countries themselves only essentially tinker around the edges for particular phrases or words. For instance, a final huddle at the conclusion of the 2013 COP19 session in Warsaw, gave rise to the phrase ‘intended nationally determined contributions’, a phase in which countries now find themselves in the midst of. And of course, the Durban Platform’s mandate of possibly including ‘an agreed outcome with legal force’ was the result of another last-night(+1) huddle in 2011.

But while these edits in phrasing are indeed far-reaching, the basic structure and content of the draft documents is something that has come from the co-chairs’ keyboards. Interventions expressing views on bits of the text are made orally, written paragraphs are submitted – but rarely do the co-chairs seek to integrate proposed edits and revisions during the course of the meeting, instead preferring to collect all of them, let them stew, and then craft compromise language that rarely takes any one suggestion verbatim.

These observations seem relevant now because after three negotiating sessions in 2015, with two still to come before the adoption of the Paris agreement, the new documents proposed by the current co-chairs finally return the process to something back to this basic pattern.

Last December’s Lima conference, and the first session of this year in Geneva, were in effect giant brainstorming exercises, producing the ‘Geneva Negotiating Text’. The subsequent version, produced before the third session of this year in August (called a ‘tool’ by the co-chairs), began to try and sort through this jumble by separating things into three parts – for the draft legal agreement, draft accompanying COP decision, and other issues. This, however, was a largely organizational exercise that was necessarily limited by the understanding that no options would be lost from the text. In-sessions discussions at the June and August meetings, trying to grapple with both the GNT and the ‘tool’, faced the challenge of trying to manage the duplications, overlaps and incoherencies by trying to redraft, on an overhead screen, the compilation text down to something more readable, and not really succeeding in this respect.

The draft now proposed by the co-chairs now goes beyond this, presenting a document that is at least manageable for countries to track future changes and see the balance across to reach a conclusion that it is acceptable to them. The inevitable first question to be confronted in the forthcoming October Bonn session is ‘is this an acceptable basis for negotiation’? But beyond this, the theory for the road to the end of the Paris conference is thus much clearer – drafts are presented, comments are made, drafts are iterated.


While I am waxing on at length about process themes, two interesting little procedural innovations have also developed under the current co-chairs.

The first is the de facto expansion of the co-chairs team to include the facilitators for thematic issues. Part of this is a practical purpose to allow for parallel discussions to enable the entire document to be discussed relatively efficiently, a job that could not be done if it was simply chaired by the same two people. But part of it also serves to increase buy-in of the draft documents, by having a wider range of countries also collectively responsible (if only in an informal sense) for the next iteration of the draft proposals.

The co-chairs’ scenario note for the upcoming meeting, detailing the process by which they produced the current non-paper, highlights the back-and-forth with the facilitators, whose judgement about the potential landing zones for agreement then also becomes fairly influential in shaping the iterated draft documents. ‘Yes, this is under our responsibility’, the co-chairs seem to be saying, ‘but we have not done this all on our own’.

The second is the emergence of a ‘heads of delegation consultation’ with the co-chairs, a new kind of meeting introduced at the conclusion of the August session, which the chairs now indicate will be convened as necessary at the next session, and certainly before the final closing plenary. I suspect that this setting is probably intended to clarify and settle procedural issues about the how work is conducted during and after the session, and not have these arguments in plenary or simply in bilateral consultations.

Any institutional setting evolves its own culture and norms about its method of work, and the UNFCCC has had its own fair share of these, from ‘friends of the chair’ meetings to huddles. This new heads of delegation one is just the latest, and its usefulness remains to be seen.

Tagged , , , ,

The Durban Platform’s procedural innovation – the ‘Chairs’ Informal Reflections’

A new year in the intergovernmental UN climate negotiating process begins soon, following last November’s Warsaw conference with the first session of the Durban Platform working group (ADP) in early March. In this post, I want to offer an observation about a small, but politically and procedurally interesting development in the ADP process – the emergence of the co-chairs’ ‘informal reflections’ on the progress of talks.

It has now become customary for the ADP co-chairs to produce “informal reflections” following each negotiating meeting. These comments have come to serve as a sort of stock-take of recent developments and highlight key areas to be addressed in the coming sessions, across the two workstreams (the 2015 agreement and pre-2020 action) of the Durban Platform. Surprisingly (at least to me), their emergence in the negotiating process has not received much attention, which I will try and highlight here.

The Warsaw ADP ‘dumping ground’
The first and most immediate reason for the importance of these informal reflections is highlighted in the effort to conclude the ADP negotiations at the COP19 Warsaw conference. While one of the stumbling blocks to get over the finishing line was the trade-off between mitigation ‘contributions’ and ‘commitments‘ in the 2015 agreement, a second area that was in dispute in the ADP’s final hours, to which less attention has been subsequently devoted, was a list annexed to the draft conclusions, titled ‘Non-exhaustive list of areas for further reflection’.

This annex effectively listed the main topics to be included in the 2015 agreement and sub-issues needing to be further elaborated in the future: institutional arrangements, differentiation, commitments, mitigation, adaptation, finance, and so on. For instance, the bullet point on adaptation read: “Adaptation: exploring a global goal; ways of strengthening the implementation of national adaptation plans; linking national and global efforts”.

The annex had first emerged in the first draft decision produced by the co-chairs earlier in the week, when it had been titled ‘Indicative elements of the 2015 agreement’ as part of the draft decision (not conclusions). By the fifth draft of the ADP decision, produced on the final night, it had been revised and moved to the conclusions and re-titled as above. Nonetheless, objections were still raised in the interventions that began in the resumed ADP plenary (now lunchtime of the Saturday after the conference was due to close).

First, India commented that the contents of the annex had not been discussed “as elaborately as we would have liked”, and that in their current form that “disturb the balance that we are trying to strike in the decision text”. India thus suggested, however, that the annex be taken out of the conclusions – and that the co-chairs could  “probably capture not only these [the contents of the annex], but all aspects of our discussions, including divergent views, in a reflection note from your side.”

The next intervention, from China, similarly emphasised that the annex included elements that had not yet been fully negotiated and that the list was “firstly, not balanced, secondly, very selective, and thirdly, maybe misleading”. China then added that “We’re not calling for the elements, or the list of areas for further reflection to [be put] into the trash can, but positively recommend [that] you capture [this] in your reflection note after the session. Certainly we will come back to the reflection note…”

A passage that made me sit up, however, was the following response from one of the co-chairs, Kishan Kumarsingh (see approx. 41:00 on the webcast recording here):

“…while the co-chairs are flattered by the many suggestions that should be put into the reflection note…the chairs’ reflection note remains the chairs’ reflection note. It is not for negotiation nor consideration by parties. It remains under the full responsibility of the chairs, and belongs to the co-chairs, but we thank you for the kind suggestion in any event.”

This exchange raises a number of points, but the first is that the co-chairs’ informal reflections seemed to provide a sort of ‘dumping ground’ for ideas and elements in a draft decision that were not fully negotiated, and hence still contentious, but perhaps not completely so – a place to relocate them without completely discarding them. This may be an interesting way of how to handle issues that countries are not in complete disagreement about, but which they have not yet had the time to negotiate over in a line-by-line manner. At Warsaw, once countries agreed to strike the annex, the rest of the draft conclusions proceeded to be be adopted (see the final ADP session report here).

‘Let the co-chairs include these in their reflections, but take it out of the text at hand’ may be a new halfway house in the negotiating process.

Non-negotiable common ground

The second interesting aspect of these informal reflections, however, is the comment cited above about the non-negotiability of the reflections: “It remains under the full responsibility of the chairs”. Something that is “not for negotiation” is a striking comment amid the constant refrain of ‘party-driven process’. Again, this appears to mark a sort of halfway house that is neither just the submissions and views of members, nor draft or agreed language itself, but an attempt to set out in a somewhat impartial way what they see as the common ground. It appears to be a novel way of attempting to capture ideas that do not yet have full agreement, but may be on the way to doing so, and perhaps to avoid losing momentum between negotiating meetings and a reversion to previously articulated positions that a long, drawn-out negotiating process may be prone to.

One earlier note, published after the first Bonn ADP session in 2013, echoes this more directly, when it included two-and-a-half pages of ‘perceived areas of common ground’ as an annex to the reflections proper. This initiative received some pushback from countries at the second Bonn ADP session in 2013, but it nonetheless points to the broad potential of these informal reflections to capture progress in ways short of formal negotiating language itself. The fact that they are not negotiated may be cause for reticence in using them too closely during negotiations themselves, but this same fact may also be a bit of a guiding hand for countries who may be nervous about putting forward a proposal themselves.

The role of the (co-)chairs

The third interesting aspect of these informal reflections, thus, is more generally about the entrepreneurial role of the co-chairs in this UNFCCC negotiating process in their novel creation of this new procedural device. This new method was introduced by the first set of ADP co-chairs in 2012, and then seamlessly continued by their successors such that they are no longer, in this brief span of time, seen as exceptional.

As Joanna Depledge pointed out a few years ago (£), chairpersons in the UNFCCC process already have considerable discretion in the management of conference proceedings. Chairs, as a result of their election, are endowed with a certain degree of authority, even while their leadership is expected to be impartial. They can “act as a third party, and intervene in the negotiating dynamics among parties to cajole, persuade, pressurize, arbitrate, intermediate, or otherwise broker deals”.

In practical terms, they make judgements about the balance of the text, whether in take-it-or-leave-it scenarios or as a result of mandates given by states to synthesize and consolidate proposals into a single text (as in the ‘consolidated negotiating text’ prepared by chair Estrada-Oyuela in the Kyoto Protocol negotiations). During the AWG-LCA negotiations in 2010, a series of ‘indicative questions’ on each issue area was issued by the chair in order to prompt a more focused method of discussion, questions that are perhaps not too dissimilar from the ones being raised by the ADP co-chairs now.

These new ADP reflection notes very much emerge out of this lineage, and they also reflect the even greater roles of the co-chairs in the ADP process (they are also distinct from the ‘scenario notes’ which are typically issued ahead of negotiating meetings that lay out the proposed way of organising the work of the session, see the one issued for the March 2014 ADP session). The UNFCCC website now features a ‘co-chairs’ corner‘ section alongside ADP documentation, perhaps another indication of their status as independent third parties within the negotiating process.

When the first such note was issued after the Bangkok 2012 ADP session, it was caveated at the outset: “This note has been prepared under our own responsibility, and is without prejudice to future negotiations. It is not a basis of negotiations, but made available to Parties to help them in their preparations for Doha”. That first note was also issued without any formal document symbols or formatting. In 2014, a few such informal notes later, there is no need for such caveats about the status of the document – instead, as the co-chair’s comments quoted above suggest, the status of their independence is more assertively put.

The irony may be that this development takes place alongside discussions on the organisation of the UNFCCC negotiations, raised by Russia in wake of the Doha COP, a key element of which seeks to scrutinize the conduct and roles of the chair and presiding officers, as well as the assisting secretariat. Formally titled ‘decision-making in the UNFCCC process’, these ’17(d)’ discussions were the reason for the Bonn sessions of the subsidiary bodies being held up in June 2013, but were convened in an open-ended way in Warsaw to offer  a discussion space for questions on how the negotiations would be conducted. Even as these discussions begin in a formal manner, however, the co-chairs have continued to demonstrate the agency and independence that they possess – as the informal notes indicate.

Tagged , , ,

Geneva’s Iran nuclear agreement and Warsaw’s climate outcome

“A recent set of international negotiations in a cold European city concluded with a landmark agreement, one that while far from comprehensive, represents a breakthrough in building trust among the different countries. If successfully implemented, it could pave the way for a broader, more far-reaching agreement in the near future that is able to bridge thornier, longstanding differences that have previously proved insurmountable, and make real progress on this issue of wider international concern.”

This was, of course, not the report coming out of the end of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 19th Conference of Parties meeting in Poland last month. But while hundreds were huddled in Warsaw for its late-running closing, this was the news from Geneva over the same weekend, where the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) were successfully concluding a round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Excitement at the Geneva agreement has been striking in comparison with the despondency at the Warsaw conclusions. While the two issues at stake – climate change and nuclear weapons proliferation – may appear distant, some broad parallels may be apt in how a process towards an international agreement is built through monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) procedure.

Monitoring Iranian nuclear enrichment
The broad shape of the Geneva agreement is a commitment whereby Iran will limit its various uranium enrichment activities, and in exchange will receive ‘sanctions relief’ from Western countries. This is an interim agreement, to be implemented over the next six months as a prelude to further discussions on a comprehensive, permanent settlement. It comes on the heels of over a year of Israeli threats to unilaterally strike Iranian nuclear facilities to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability – and many more years of international diplomacy on the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which Iran insists have only peaceful intentions.

Stages of enrichment: Benjamin Netanyahu’s diagram of Israel’s red line in his 2012 UN General Assembly address. Photo: Reuters

The agreed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment, however, are meaningful only in the context of assurances that these restrictions are being implemented and lived up to. A core element of the Geneva agreement, therefore, is an increased monitoring process by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors – daily access to Iran’s uranium enrichment plants, increased access to other nuclear-related facilities, and updated information about its heavy-water plant (a key part of the plutonium production process).

While the overall restrictions are themselves significant, it is in this monitoring and inspection process that success of the Geneva agreement (and any long-term agreement) rests. The P5+1 countries brokering the Geneva agreement (and their allies in the region) will need to be satisfied that the agreement is being implemented satisfactorily in order to move towards longer-term issues. Put in more general terms, this is little more than the core challenge of international cooperation (amid international anarchy etc.): how do you work towards realising joint gains amid uncertainty about others’ intentions and the possibility of being taken for a ride?

Thus, this IAEA process is intended to assure Western countries that Iran is indeed in compliance with the agreement by providing greater transparency on Iran’s nuclear activities. More extensive monitoring and inspection processes raise the likelihood, for Iran, of being caught conducting secret enrichment activities and thereby raises incentives to remain in compliance with the terms of the Geneva agreement. It agrees to bind itself – despite its professed ‘nuclear rights’ – as a means of demonstrating its credibility to its Western interlocutors. A term used frequently in arms control processes (but less familiar in environmental contexts) to describe the value of this stage of negotiation is as a “confidence-building measure”. As Brookings analyst Kenneth Pollack put it, the Geneva agreement is such a step towards reducing suspicions and demonstrate good faith, necessary towards a more comprehensive future deal:

“Neither side trusts the other, but both sides needed to see some tangible manifestation ahead of time, that the other would be willing to do what would be required in a final deal. We needed a demonstration of Iran’s willingness to halt its nuclear progress, give up much of what it has already accomplished, and submit to more comprehensive inspections. And Iran needed to see that the international community (read: the U.S.) would be willing to provide sanctions relief and allow Iran to retain some limited enrichment capacity, albeit with guarantees and safeguards that it would be solely for civilian purposes.”

These elements of the Geneva agreement – the importance of reporting and verification, and the larger process of building mutual confidence – are instructive in turning to the outcomes of the Warsaw climate conference.

Monitoring climate progress
While much of the headlines at COP19 and its aftermath focused on progress (and lack thereof) on loss and damage, finance, and the Durban Platform process towards the envisaged 2015 agreement, on two other issues agreement was more forthcoming: the climate regime’s MRV (monitoring, reporting and verification) processes, and detailed rules on deforestation (REDD+), the latter being described as COP19’s “singular achievement”.

While I am not an expert in the details of either topics, both are crucial building blocks for the prospect of stronger commitments in the future. The MRV outcomes included agreement on the the ‘team of technical experts’ to carry out the ‘international consultation and analysis’ (ICA) process in developing countries; new guidelines for reviewing periodic reports (i.e. national communications, GHG inventories and biennial reports) by developed countries; and general guidelines for the domestic MRV of domestically supported actions in developing countries. These MRV provisions for developing countries are not insignificant (once upon a time, wariness at developing countries having to ‘report’ anything about their emissions to the international level led to the original Framework Convention on Climate Change’s reporting procedure being called ‘national communications’), and were first outlined back in 2010 at the Cancun COP. Agreement on their terms of operation is an important step forward and sets the stage for “2014 being a big year for MRV” with many of the first deadlines for these new procedures looming. Indeed, the rather uneven levels of commitments being taken (some states are Kyoto Protocol members, others are not; different countries use different frameworks of measurement, and so on) has highlighted the importance of MRV processes to ensure that different types of action are indeed “comparable” in the bigger global picture.

Monitoring, reporting and verification issues also loomed large on the REDD+ agenda and reached a package of related decisions (see fuller summaries of the COP19 REDD+ progress here and here). The question of how developing countries should be supported for reducing deforestation/forest degradation has centrally been about how progress is to be ‘MRVed’ in order for “results-based finance” to flow: how are safeguards for impacts on indigenous communities to be met; how are baselines against which progress is to be judged to be measured; how countries will report on and show that emission reductions from deforestation are genuine, and so on. The gestation of the REDD+ agenda has also been a long-winding one since its formal entry onto the UNFCCC agenda in 2005, and agreement on the important scientific minutiae of how to count progress on reducing deforestation/degradation is, to a certain extent, playing catch-up with action taking place outside of the UNFCCC sphere.

In both these areas the main concern is the same –  as it is with the Geneva agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme: building a set of rules that can provide transparency about the action that governments are taking, in order to prevent backsliding and provide a basis for more far-reaching international cooperation. The same trade-offs exist in both the climate and nuclear domains, between intrusions on sovereignty and providing assurances to others about the sincerity of one’s actions and intentions – the hope being, of course, that this making this trade-off will help all to realise mutual benefits (respectively, more robust global climate action and a world less at risk of nuclear war).

But it is that phrase above, confidence-building measures, that may also help make sense of this area of progress in the climate negotiations. MRV processes are not in themselves going to do much to address climate change if the overall commitments are weak, and much of COP19’s conclusions were indeed weak. But without such MRV processes, countries are going to be much less willing to act jointly – and this applies as much to the MRV of ‘actions’ as it does to the MRV of ‘support’ (the triumvirate of finance, technology transfer and capacity building) to implement emission-reducing activities. Investing time and energy in designing and reviewing the MRV system is a key purpose of a genuinely ‘multilateral’ system, so that everyone can be sure about the rules that others are playing by. As confidence grows that others are indeed playing by the rules they signed up to, then both commitments and their verification can be deepened.

(For an excellent discussion of this deepening process has worked in arms control negotiations, and lessons for the climate process, see this 2012 World Resources Institute report).

Certainly, important gaps remain to be filled in the reporting framework for future climate action, and the COP19 MRV provisions are far from the whole picture. But my point here has been, amid the general pessimism at 2013’s climate change progress (Christiana Figueres excepted), to suggest reason for a little bit of cheer from the Warsaw conference. How to count carbon and measure actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are never going to be the headline outcomes from the international effort to address climate change. But like the parallel talks on nuclear non-proliferation, the details of MRV processes, and their role in edging parties in a stepwise fashion towards mutual ‘trust’ and confidence in each other, are essential to the prospect of any longer-term action.

(A final footnote: in the period between Warsaw/Geneva and writing this post, a new WTO agreement was concluded in Bali, a conclusion to the Doha Round launched back in 2001 and repeatedly stuttered in the ensuing decade. For some time now, the sluggishness of the UNFCCC process has been compared to this ‘dead’ WTO one. Without delving into any of its substance here, though, may there be other lessons for multilateral cooperation?)

Tagged , , , , ,

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)

Tagged , , ,

A window of opportunity opens in the international climate talks

Since the collapse of the 2009 Copenhagen conference, much of what has gone on at the negotiating sessions of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has slipped off the radar of both public and political attention. But a new chapter in the international climate change negotiations begins this year – and could be a unique moment in efforts to craft international agreement on how the world will collectively attempt to slow global climate change.

This week, the Durban Platform working group (ADP) is convening in Bonn, Germany, for the first of three meetings in 2013, moving in earnest towards its 2015 deadline to agree a new international treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol and enter into force in 2020. But while the ADP negotiating process had been launched at the 2011 Durban conference, its progress last year was dogged by deep conflict over how to organise its work, partly in view of substantively similar issues being discussed in parallel negotiating processes, and thus resulting in disagreement over the right procedural ‘home’ for substantive discussions.

Two other sets of processes – on the fate of the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period, and on ‘Long-term Cooperative Action’ (LCA) – were brought to a conclusion at last year’s Doha conference and streamlined into existing institutions and bodies. Thus, now free of the procedural morass that characterised UNFCCC negotiations in 2012, the ADP process that unfolds over the next three years represent what may be seen as a contingent moment in the history of the UN climate negotiating process, where fundamental questions over the design and scope of an international agreement are up for grabs in a way and manner perhaps unseen since the beginning of the initial intergovernmental negotiations at the end of the 1980s.

The 2013 UNFCCC meeting on the ADP in Bonn, Germany. Credit; UNFCCC/flickr

Around the rooms and corridors of the climate negotiations, an oft-heard phrase is that ‘context shapes content’, a reference to the way in which previous decisions and agreement carefully sets the boundaries of what can be agreed substantively at any given session. In 2013, with the Kyoto and LCA negotiating tracks no longer defining the main focus for negotiations, the context for the ADP is dramatically different than it was a year ago, free to stretch its legs and begin to chart a way forward without being accused of prejudging decisions taking place in the other negotiating tracks.

This is, therefore, a tremendously febrile moment, fertile for new ideas and approaches that have been buzzing around the past few years from think tanks, NGOs and academia, to finally make it into the substance of a new intergovernmental agreement. It is a moment that can be a profoundly creative one, with a bit more space to explore and imagine different ways of proceeding. And it is, most importantly, a unique moment, one where the procedural constraints that so tightly structure the negotiating process have been momentarily relaxed. Both previous ‘big bang’ moments for the UNFCCC process – Kyoto in 1997, and Copenhagen in 2009 – were directed by negotiating mandates that had relatively clear parameters, even if these were contested by some. Agreement on the Kyoto Protocol had been guided by the 1995 Berlin Mandate that limited binding emission reductions to developed countries; and the attempt at a new agreement in Copenhagen had a full-blown agenda specified in the 2007 Bali Action Plan.By contrast, the ADP mandate is relatively non-prescriptive, simply setting out a goal for a legal instrument to be agreed by 2015 and an interim process to raise mitigation ambition in advance of this legal instrument coming into force in 2020.

The co-chairs of the ADP process, for their part, recognise that the carefully-crafted ambiguity of their mandates provide an opportunity for negotiators to reflect on the very purpose of an international agreement, and not just its content and form. Questions that they have asked negotiators to address in forthcoming discussions are strikingly open-ended: “How would the agreement be designed to ensure durability and flexibility to respond to changes in national circumstances and evolving scientific knowledge over time?”; “How will the principles of the Convention be applied in the new agreement?”; and “Are new arrangements needed in the 2015 agreement to ensure transparency of action and support and, if so, which?”

These, and the other questions that the co-chairs have framed for discussion, are remarkable because they address deeply the core normative issues of the negotiations that have simmered away in recent years but which have been perennially dodged rather than confronted: How should the benefits and burdens of climate action be distributed in a diverse world? In effect, they almost resemble an effort to design the new agreement beginning with a blank sheet of paper, loosened from the norms that have guided the past two decades of the climate negotiations.

As the ADP talks proceed, the institutional machinery of the UNFCCC process rumbles on as the new institutions established in the past two years, especially the Green Climate Fund, find their footing and begin the work of implementing their mandates. And wider developments, most recently the crisis that the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme finds itself in and the collapse of the carbon price, obviously condition the demands and flexibility that governments come to the UNFCCC negotiating table with. Nonetheless, at this particular negotiating venue, we are now entering a moment where there is at least the space for far more creativity and innovation than what the memory of recent disappointments might suggest.

In the years since Copenhagen, those inside and outside the political drama of what goes on at the UNFCCC process have come to recognise the multilevel, multilayered nature of global climate action, where an intergovernmental treaty is just one, and perhaps not even the most central, element. But some kind of binding international agreement still remains the political lodestar for many, and the ADP’s 2015 deadline is now the date that looms on the horizon. Many have bemoaned the glacial, circular and halting pace of progress in the UN climate negotiations. The next three years – in a negotiating context wholly distinct from previous ones – may present a unique opportunity to break that mould.

Originally posted at Politics in Spires on 2 May 2013

Tagged , , , , , ,

The Security Council and climate change: nothing to see here

In a recent UN Security Council debate, talk of “green helmets” provides a visually compelling image of the way in which UN ‘blue-helmet’ peacekeeping could be adapted to reflect the security challenges of climate change. While others have noted the weakness of the Council’s final conclusion, I’m not sure, however, that the Security Council’s engagement with the subject would add very much to international efforts to address climate change.

In the four years since the last Council debate on the security implications of climate change, not much seems to have changed in the politics of the issue – many developing countries, China and the Non-Aligned Movement included, are resistant to the very inclusion of the issue on the Security Council agenda. While the German presidency of the Council sought to focus the debate around two specific areas – sea-level rise, particularly in the context of small island states, and food insecurity – the fundamental nature of how we think about the connection between climate change and security hasn’t changed.

The commonly-accepted way of thinking about climate change as a security issue is as a ‘threat multiplier’ – a factor that exacerbates the intensity or frequency of existing challenges, whether in famine, migration patterns, resource scarcities and so on. But when conflicts or crises that we can be say to be ‘climate-related’ do arise, there is little that is qualitatively different about these situations than the existing range of situations that the Security Council confronts. Changing weather patterns and a rise in global temperature are themselves only distant and indirect, not proximate ’causes’ of conflict. Instead, their effects are felt through phenomena already commonly experienced. For instance, climate change may induce drought or flooding, the significance of which depends on the resilience of how that society is governed, economically and socially. The length and complexity of this causal chain means that, for the purposes of what the Security Council can do, climate change drops out of the equation.

Ahead of the Council’s debate, Germany’s UN Ambassador acknowledged as much:

“As far-fetched as the idea of “green-helmets” might sound, consider the tasks that the United Nations peacekeepers already perform today — e.g. emergency aid, development and recovery, state — and peacebuilding. Repainting blue helmets into green might be a strong signal — but would dealing with the consequences of climate change — say in precarious regions — be really very different from the tasks the blue helmets already perform today?”

When crises do emerge that are related to climate change, they will be dealt with in the normal way. Through peacekeepers as a possible course of action, they’ll only be addressing symptoms – but the Security Council only ever addresses symptoms. The ‘climate’ perspective only comes in when we try and understand the causes of conflict – and dealing with deep-rooted causes is not really something the Security Council does.

Instead, to do that, we have to turn to the ultimate causes of climate change, in the sources of rising greenhouse gas emissions, with the challenge of how to slow, and eventually reverse, global emissions. And that is something that I can’t see the Security Council touching with a barge pole, in involving core questions of how national economies are to be organized and the problems of global economic cooperation.

As the Presidential Statement released at the end of the debate noted, the Security Council has to consider how the impacts of climate change will affect its other mandates and missions. That, however, is somewhat removed from the notion that talk of the ‘security implications of climate change’ provide novel missions and rationales for action. Any change in this area is at best, incremental. So could the Security Council could become an institutional hub for international efforts on the issue? Not a chance.

Tagged , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: