UN climate talks: the toughest negotiations on planet earth

Diplomats involved in creating a global emissions reduction treaty explain why it’s such a tortuous process

Climate change could cause an increase in extreme weather events like Typhoon Bopha in 2012, which left 600 dead (Pic: Sonny Day)

Climate change could cause an increase in extreme weather events like Typhoon Bopha in 2012, which left 600 dead (Pic: Sonny Day)

By Ed King

Pa Ousman Jarju says he feels inspired to continue his work as Gambia’s climate change envoy when he visits communities deep in his country’s interior.

Villagers face a daily struggle against a declining water table, affecting their health and their futures as farmers.

“You see the challenges they face over the years in terms of access to water, and linking food security to water and the impact that climate change has on those gives me the energy to really push for climate diplomacy, so that our people can live,” he tells RTCC quietly.

Gambia lies just beneath the Sahel, a 100km wide strip of land running from Africa’s east to west coast, a region military experts and the UN say could experience a rise in civil war, genocide and sexual violence as a result of climate change.

For Pa Ousman, who entered the world of climate politics in 2005, UN talks on global warming are a matter of his country’s survival. He finds himself immersed in their complexities on a daily basis.

They are personal. Lives are at stake. And while negotiations on a proposed global climate deal rumble on into their 22nd year, his people suffer.

Final landing

Next week diplomats from 195 countries will fire up their ipads, don their suits and gather at West Germany’s former parliament building in Bonn on the banks of the Rhine.

There they will start plotting the third – and perhaps final – attempt to create global deal that could prevent the atmosphere warming 2C above pre-industrial levels, a ceiling deemed dangerous and one heads of state agreed to avoid in 2009.

A UN climate science study released last September warned that a finite amount of greenhouse gases can be released before the world breaks 2C, and that emissions will likely need to peak this decade.

Meanwhile the International Energy Agency says global energy demand is expected to rise 30% by 2035. Most of this will be driven by emerging and developing economies. If they achieve this leap through fossil fuels, global warming could spiral out of control.

(Pic: Alson J. Kelen)

Pacific Island leaders warn that if the world warms above 2C, their homes may sink beneath the ocean (Pic: Alson J. Kelen)

The aim of the current set of UN talks is a fundamental shift in the ways economies use with energy, away from fossil fuels and into a mix of wind, solar, biomass, hydro and nuclear, but the timeline is tight.

A global emissions reduction agreement is set to be signed in Paris next year, and a draft text needs to be completed by the time countries gather for the annual conference of the parties (COP) which will take place in Lima this November.

Mission impossible?

It’s these challenges, worth trillions to economies around the world, that make the UN negotiations one of the toughest sets of talks on the planet, says Venezuela’s lead envoy Claudia Salerno.

“This is not an environmental agreement,” she tells RTCC. “It’s one of the largest most ambitious economic arrangements for the world and for the next century. This is by far the most important process the world will face in this century and the next.”

Russian negotiator Oleg Shamanov shares her view. “The issue is extremely complex. It goes to the core of economic parameters and something that deals with highly sophisticated scientific under-layers. And it’s extremely difficult to do the wording and assessment,” he says.

It’s especially complex because unlike previous environmental agreements on ozone or sulphur, climate change touches every facet of national economies.

Discussions touch on energy, markets, technology, finance, intellectual property rights and development practices. That’s before you drop in questions of historical legacies and colonialism.

“It is supremely challenging compared to other negotiations. That makes it a fascinating problem but it also makes it very difficult,” says Pete Betts, a senior UK official and EU lead negotiator.

Concern over heavy pollution could prompt China's government to take tougher carbon cutting steps Source: Kevin Dooley

Concern over heavy pollution could prompt China’s government to take tougher carbon cutting steps Source: Kevin Dooley

There is evidence to suggest the wheel is turning. Two weeks ago a UN-backed study revealed 66 countries covering 88% of emissions now have varying degrees of legislation covering climate change.

According to Bloomberg in 2013 global investment in clean energy was $254bn, a drop on 2012 and 2011. Analysts say this reflected both uncertain policy signals from governments, and falling costs of renewable technologies.

But fossil fuels still provide around 80% of the world’s electricity, and the long term outlook for coal and gas demand appears fairly stable.

Yongsheng Zhang, a senior advisor to China’s State Council, feels political leaders are waiting to see evidence that their competitors are committed to ‘green growth’ before moving.

Zhang tells RTCC the UN talks are like discussions on free trade 200 years ago, when it took the UK to enforce a unilateral free trade policy to make others see its benefits. “It is a chicken and egg situation. Once the green growth process is triggered, it will be self-fulfilling,” he says.

Zero sum game

For years negotiators have approached the annual UN climate summit with similar philosophies. Who wants to accept carbon cuts if competing countries refuse to? Nowhere is this divide more exposed than between the developed and developing worlds.

Richer nations argue that tough emission reductions simply mean their industry goes to the developing world, and leaves them at a competitive disadvantage. Poor nations argue they’re not responsible for the high levels of carbon in the atmosphere, so should have to make smaller cuts.

This simple yet intractable hurdle has left some diplomats in tears, and superpowers like the USA and China locked in a never-ending blame game.

And yet in part because of the compelling science, the advance of clean energy systems and the high levels of pollution in emerging economies, this situation has started to evolve.

Pete Betts says there was a shift at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference. Widely derided as a disaster, he points out it managed to extract economy-wide pledges from the world’s major players.

“It’s the nature of this process that nothing is agreed till everything is agreed on the real big picture 2015,” he says. “But I would say it is positive that no-one is seriously pushing back on the notion that everyone has to produce their contribution in the 1st quarter of next year.”

Negotiators hope Ban Ki-moon's climate summit in September will see new emission and financial pledges delivered(Pic: UNFCCC)

Negotiators hope Ban Ki-moon’s climate summit in September will see new emission and financial pledges delivered (Pic: UNFCCC)

Venezuela’s Salerno, who deliberately cut her hand in Copenhagen to get the attention of the chair, agrees that times are changing. “Everybody is engaging in a positive way to create that momentum collectively,” she says.

Gambia’s Pa Ousman, a leading member of the 49 strong Least Developed Countries bloc, says a new spirit of cooperation from the USA in Obama’s second term is one sign diplomats have picked up on.

“They have some red lines but they have been compromising,” he says. “I think – this is my own understanding – this is reflective of the Obama’s administration pursuit to be positive and try to play a bigger role on climate change.”

A new dawn?

What seems clear now is that no agreement next year will be enough, on its own, to prevent warming above and beyond 2C.

Rather it could set the world on a trajectory towards carbon neutrality by the middle of the century. That much was acknowledged by current UN climate chief Christiana Figueres and two of her predecessors in interviews with RTCC last year.

Betts says the deal will need to be flexible and respectful of national capabilities, given the 195 countries involved, but have a few core and tough principles at its heart.

“We in the EU are clear it will need to be a legally binding agreement, we are clear there will need to be a process next year where we look an intended contributions…understand what they mean and then review where we are individually and collectively,” he says.

Despite disagreeing over the precise ways in which it would be legally binding and based on clear rules, there appears to be little between the EU and USA in terms of how they conceptualise the agreement.

State Department officials only offered their thoughts under ‘deep cover’, but it’s fair to say those RTCC has spoken to echo climate envoy Todd Stern’s thoughts at Chatham House last year.

Stern wants a flexible deal based on nationally determined targets. Most of all he wants Brazil, China, India and Russia to acknowledge they bear equal responsibility to the US in addressing climate change.

Stern wants to focus on "the real power of creating norms and expectations as distinguished from rigid rules" (Pic: UNFCCC/Flickr)

Stern wants to focus on “the real power of creating norms
and expectations as distinguished from rigid rules” (Pic: UNFCCC/Flickr)

It’s not a message many want to hear. Venezuela’s Salerno warns that if the US cannot accept a tough legal structure, the rest of the world may leave it behind.

“Their limits are exactly the same, even worse. But I think the rest is getting so ready I do not see this as a US agreement, and I refuse to see it like that,” she says, adding: “I will not negotiate the future of my children on the US limits.”

Others, for now, strike a more conciliatory tone. Pa Ousman says what’s crucial is a deal that allows developed countries and emerging economies to engage.

“We want broader participation, but we also want something that is effective, and we want something that is going to be within a rule based, multilateral system. If the national targets are very low we would see how we can use the top down approach to raise them.”

But whatever the talk of a tough, top down approach it’s unlikely national pledges will be determined in public. Rather, individual countries will come to their own conclusions and present their bids over the next 12 months.

The EU’s is practically in, while the US and China are expected to submit theirs in early 2015. Other big emitters such as India and Brazil are still vague about what, when and how they could make an offer.

How various countries may try and ‘game’ the system is also a concern for many, so it’s critical to focus on what forms of information that need to be submitted along with pledges.

The EU outlined possible criteria for pledges in a recent submission to the UN, but this is the start of what could be a contentious process, as countries try and wriggle out of commitments.

Shamanov warns against anyone trying to predict how the deal could work: “Nothing is settled or cast in iron. It’s always somewhere in between. We have to avoid the extremities,” he says.

Money will talk

Lying in wait of all of these timetables is a chronic lack of low carbon investment, a problem that looks tougher year on year. Trillions of dollars are needed over the next two decades, says leading climate change economist Lord Nicholas Stern.

In 2009 rich countries promised to deliver US$100 billion for the developing world by 2020. That figure seems a long way off, which worries Ecuador negotiator Daniel Ortega.

“When I look at the timeline on finance resources, that’s where I am concerned…For me there will not be flexibility on complementary mitigation in our countries if there is no sign of resources,” he says.

Around $30 billion of ‘Fast Start Finance’ was delivered between 2010-2012, but the well has run dry, bar a few hundred million here and there. Meanwhile, the debate on post-2020 financing hasn’t seriously started.

Pa Ousman says a diplomatic disaster looms in 2015 unless the finance question is addressed. “It would be important for countries to give some signal of how they want to move in terms of their contribution – that would be very positive. We cannot wait until the middle of next year to start,” he says.

Some major economies have offered substantial funds, but collectively they fall well short of that $100bn total, and Todd Stern is characteristically blunt about the potential for more government donations: “No step change in the levels of public funding from developed countries is likely to come anytime soon,” he says.

For now, a heavy burden rests on the UN-backed Green Climate Fund. This is scheduled to be up and running later this year, but is riven with splits among its 25-strong board, and doubts persist over how effective it will be.

A recent three-day meeting had eight goals and accomplished two. One observer called it a “shambles”, while others were less polite.

It’s disappointing, admits Betts, who knows how critical the GCF could be in leveraging the billions of private sector finance needed to help developing economies go green.

“This is a concern and we hope that everybody shares our urgency to get this done,” he says, diplomatically.

High level dialogue

One ingredient that could add urgency is the prospect of world leaders in New York at a climate summit planned by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The presence of Barack Obama, Xi Jinping and perhaps even Vladmir Putin at a summit may encourage some politicians to make bolder comments than they had otherwise planned.

“These meetings can push people to say what they don’t want to say,” said another US diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.

Pa Ousman says he hopes to see new initiatives from the national, city and business leaders invited. UN climate chief Figueres wants “announcements” and “pledges”.

Shamanov remains an optimist, hoping that the gathering could be a chance to break the ‘firewall’ between developed and developing, saving negotiators the pain of further debates down the line.

“As a negotiator I’d like to have a breakthrough at the high political level of heads of state and government. Hopefully they would be there – who knows?” he says.

One EU diplomat speaking off the record says a main problem at Copenhagen was the lack of dialogue between leaders ahead of the meeting.

“When they arrived they were surprised that they had no workable text. That is something they may want to avoid in Paris,” they say.

Last chance

At the core of these talks lies trust. If one country moves first, its leaders wonder if they will be hung out to dry by the others. Decisions by the governments of Canada and Japan to rip up their emission reduction pledges have added to this air of uncertainty.

Veteran observers at UN summit tell RTCC they cannot recall the last major Conference of the Parties that finished on time. Deeply rooted political interest dictates that only when faced with exhaustion or the conference doors closing does a decision get made.

So is anything different now to 2008, a year before the countdown to Denmark’s ill-fated hosting of the climate conference to end all conferences?

For Russia’s Shamanov, the current discourse is slightly more measured, the understanding of the difficulty and complexity of the talks more comprehensive.

“Before Copenhagen the political stove was overheated – the expectations were so high – it was like electricity flying in the rooms. That was negative, because the nervousness and the political stakes were so high,” he says.

110 world leaders attended the Copenhagen climate summit, with the US, China, India, South Africa, Brazil and the EU leading talks (Pic: UNFCCC)

110 world leaders attended the Copenhagen climate summit, with the US, China, India, South Africa, Brazil and the EU leading talks (Pic: UNFCCC)

In part, the relative calm appears to be a consequence of leading officials and politicians committed to addressing climate change emphasising the importance of looking for progress outside the UN umbrella.

“One thing we did get wrong in Copenhagen was to build expectations such that if it fell short in any way from a perfect deal then it was a failure. No single agreement in one year is ever going to be the final story,” says Betts.

Stern appears to concur: “We should be well aware that an international agreement is by no means the whole answer. The most important drivers of climate action are countries acting at home,” he says.

Perhaps, as UK energy and climate minister Greg Barker suggested recently, the foundations for a global deal are better now because of the falling costs of clean energy systems.

And perhaps the UN’s recent climate science study compiled by the IPCC has shaken some politicians into action, fearful of being branded as the man or woman who let the world fry.

What is clear is that politicians and diplomats view these talks with intense nervousness, knowing how much scrutiny is now focused on this process.

Shamanov warns that the 2015 summit in the French capital could be a final moment for the world to agree on capping emissions.

Failure in the city of lights could see darkness descend on efforts to avoid 2C of warming, and would represent a huge blow to the multilateral process.

“We do not have any other chance,” he adds. “If not in Paris, I do not believe we will have any other chance.”

FACT CHECK: What are the UN climate talks?

The UN climate convention launched in 1992, after the potential effects of rising levels of greenhouse gases were highlighted by scientists and politicians. In the past 21 years there have been two major efforts to come to a global agreement on how to cut these emissions.

In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was born, committing industrialised countries to reducing emissions 5.2% below their 1990 levels. Initially hailed a success, the refusal of the USA to ratify the treaty and a lack of participation from the major emerging economies led many to brand it a failure.

Twelve years later world leaders gathered in Copenhagen aiming for another stab. This meeting ended in acrimony and without the tough new carbon cutting agreement many had hoped for. But for the first time most major polluters had offered to review and restrict their emissions.

In 2011 countries again agreed to work towards a new deal, involving all countries and committing to avoid warming of above 2C. This is currently under negotiation and is set to be signed off in Paris next year, and come into effect in 2020.

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