UNFCCC parties hope Bangkok’s summer sun can thaw deep divisions sown in Bonn

By Ed King

Nine months on from what was billed as an ‘historic’ Durban Platform agreement, the UN climate change talks look in danger of sliding backwards again.

If COP17 saw the world take a tentative step towards a legally binding global emissions deal, the Bonn round of negotiations in May saw the reverse.

Where harmony had prevailed in South Africa, discord reigned in Germany.

Two lead negotiators in Bonn told RTCC they were ‘nasty’,‘unproductive’ and ‘lacking vision’, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth as old divisions re-emerged.

“It’s like a merry-go-round at the moment,” Seychelles National climate change committee member Vincent Amelie told me. “The President is angry things are not moving forward – it’s just a lot of talk talk talk.”

From these smouldering embers were born an informal round of talks in Bangkok, a city which frequently hosts the UNFCCC, most recently in April 2011.

Christiana Figueres put on a brave face, but many felt Bonn 2012 was a step back

What’s on the agenda?

The future of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention (AWG-LCA) needs to be resolved by the end of COP18 – Bangkok could lay the foundations for this.

This negotiating stream was adopted in 2007 at COP13 as part of the Bali Action Plan.

As the name suggests the LCA’s aim is to develop a long-term strategy for reducing global Greenhouse Gas Emissions, culminating in what it refers to as an ‘agreed outcome’, but it’s clear from reading points 1A and 1B1 in the Bali document mandate that the LCA’s key goals have not been achieved.

There appears to be no ‘shared vision’, developed states have not stated their ‘quantified emission and limitation targets’, and developing countries have not submitted their own mitigation actions in ‘a measurable, verifiable and reportable manner’.

So the fat lady hasn’t sung. But in a sense the COP17 decision to adopt the Durban Platform  leapfrogged the LCA, with a mandate for a ‘legal instrument or outcome’, and an agreement in 2015 with implementation in 2020.

Parties need to decide a plan of action for the Durban Platform working group (ADP), so that the real work can begin in Doha. If its relationship with the LCA is still unresolved this could place a major spanner in the works.

The USA, Canada and Japan are all keen to see key LCA themes moved to the Durban Platform negotiating track, with the latter closed down. A cynic might suggest it would also suit them because there is no mention of Common But Differentiated Responsibility and Equity in the Durban Platform agreement.

You can see the dilemma for the Parties.

The LCA has important work to do, particularly when it comes to addressing the responsibilities of developed and developing nations. But the new stream could also take us to a legally binding framework.

What’s clear is that something has to give. A lead developed nation negotiator told me “it would be fatal if we decide to extend the mandate of the AWG-LCA…we could end up in Doha with seven negotiating streams.”

And he has a point – it’s complicated enough without adding more levels – but it’s optimistic to expect this can be resolved in Thailand.

Kyoto Protocol

Negotiators expect the proposed second commitment period of Kyoto (KP2) to be discussed behind closed doors, and are not expecting any decision.

Issues to be resolved include the length of the commitment period (five or eight years), converting current pledges into binding limits and resolving what many call the ‘hot air’ issue, the vast number of surplus emission credits from the first period.

So far the EU, Switzerland and Norway have signalled their intention to participate. Australia and New Zealand appear to be edging closer to taking part – and NGOs in those countries are preparing a new wave of campaigns to encourage them to do so.

And let’s be clear. A second period with the EU will only cover around 11% of global emissions, so it would be useful for others to come on board.

Movement on KP2 will also give the EU much-needed bargaining power in Doha. Its alliance with the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) at COP17 enabled EU climate chief Connie Hedegaard to push through the Durban Platform.

Finance

The Green Climate Fund (GCF) board met for the first time last week – agreeing two-co chairs. But decisions over how it will operate, who will run it, and crucially where it will be based are expected to take longer. The next meeting is scheduled for October.

Of greater immediate importance is the next round of Fast Start Finance – the current period expires at the end of 2012, and pledges for 2013 are urgently required, and expect some spiky exchanges between those lending the money and those receiving.

The USA has recently been accused by some Indian commentators of using Fast Start Finance to promote its own Solar PV industry at the expense of India’s (i.e. by forcing India to spend the money it is lent buying US goods).

We could also expect to see initiatives such as the EU-ETS Aviation carbon trading scheme discussed – India, Russia and China oppose what they see as a unilateral EU move.

2°C or not 2°C?

Apologies to the BBC’s Richard Black for stealing his pithy headline – but the debate over mitigation levels and what level of warming is acceptable could re-ignite in Bangkok.

US negotiator Todd Stern may argue recent comments on the UN’s goal to keep warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels were misinterpreted – but it’s clear he wants more flexibility at the negotiations.

Stern may have a point – and a seasoned observer told me these comments were “‘no massive surprise”, while only last week a senior UK scientist said hopes of limiting warming to 2°C were ‘out of the window‘.

But Stern’s views caused concern and alarm around the world – especially among poorer and more vulnerable states. As Vincent Amelie from the Seychelles pointed out: “We are talking about our survival, so we cannot go about 2°C. Rather we should aim for 1.5°C.”

A spat over this mythical figure is the last thing the UNFCCC needs – and the more we keep discussing it – the less likely it is we can avoid it.

No hope?

A leading negotiator told me last week: “We need to have some vision”. I disagree – I think we have enough visions out there for a thousand conferences. What we need are old fashioned negotiations, an understanding of the term ‘compromise’ and a smidgen of realism.

Perhaps low expectations and a low-key summit are exactly what the talks require. With no plenary sessions for nations to bellow at each other, and limited media access, the focus will be on speaking to each other.

COP18/CMP8 is also a big deal for Qatar, the small Middle East state that punches well above its weight (and has the highest per-capita emissions on the planet).

COP chairman and Qatari Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah demonstrated his charm and apparent passion for this subject during last month’s Petersberg climate conference in Berlin.

Desperate for the talks not to be seen as a disaster, Qatar’s influence behind the scenes could be vital.

With that in mind it’s worth remembering that successful summits are the result of months of work – we’re now at the point where the fate of COP18 hangs in the balance.

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