Ballooning UN climate text risks becoming “unmanageable”

Deluge of proposals from nearly 200 countries could make reaching agreement in Paris hard work, say delegates in Geneva


(Pic: UNFCCC/Flickr)

By Ed King

UN climate change negotiations risk becoming unmanageable unless countries start cutting down a rapidly expanding set of proposals for a global deal.

The latest set of talks started on Sunday in Geneva, and already the section of a draft text dealing with greenhouse gas mitigation strategies has ballooned from 3.5 to 11.5 pages.

“Everybody has got inspired and they are putting tonnes and tonnes of paragraphs into the text, which is going to be quite unmanageable,” said Claudia Salerno, Venezuela’s climate envoy.

The UN hopes the 8-13 February meeting will result in the basis of an agreement that governments can discuss, nearly 10 months before they are expected to rubber stamp it in Paris.

Confidence building

Officials decided to allow the 195 participating countries to add suggestions to a 38-page list of elements in the hope this would build trust at the talks.

The move was welcomed by many countries who felt they had been ignored at previous meetings, said Salerno, a veteran of this process, but she said there was a danger it could result in a “huge” document.

“From now the chairs will have to move carefully with this exercise – but at a point tonight or tomorrow morning I think they should take provisions to allow countries to streamline,” she said.

“Otherwise we will leave the Geneva talks with a document that looks like the LCA [Long-term climate action] document from 2009, which was 200 pages.”

Early calm

UN officials say they will stop receiving suggestions on Tuesday, after which they will present a text for “streamlining” from Wednesday-Friday.

“I suspect that’s when the harder conversations will take place… that’s where we see the sharp differences could emerge,” said WWF climate advisor Tasneem Essop.

US diplomats drew some criticism after replacing text that says “developed” and “developing” with “annex x” and “annex y” in a bid to reflect evolving differentiation between participants.

Other new proposals include one for all developed countries to accept absolute emission reduction targets from 2020-2031 based on historical responsibility for climate change.

Another calls for the creation of an economic mechanism that would create an enhanced global carbon market for the use of countries with “quantified economy-wide absolute targets.”

A third suggests countries target “near-zero” emissions by the end of the century, an addition to current options which include a target for net-zero emissions by 2050.

Inclusive process

Civil society observers have broadly welcomed efforts to encourage more ideas, even if it means leaving on Friday with a giant document.

“I’m not too fearful that if we emerge with a very big text that will be a problem for a final agreement,” said Essop.

“I think it’s better to have all in than people being angry for not having their proposals reflected.”

New references to human rights and a demand for climate compensation – or loss and damage – were also positive, said Care International’s Sven Harmeling.

“There is a concern that, under the label of climate change, certain activities might be promoted in countries which are to the detriment of fulfilling human rights,” he said, warning that major dams or human relocations could come at a cost.


Once Geneva closes on Friday, the next set of negotiations will take place in June, but Salerno said two extra sessions were being considered to offer countries more space for discussion.

Few observers are willing to say what length an ideal text for the Paris agreement would be, preferring to focus on what the final pact could look like.

“There is a consensus that this would have to be a comprehensive agreement – adaptation, mitigation, means of support would have to be factored in, as with reporting and transparency mechanisms,” said Essop.

But critical differences remain between key groups, admitted Salerno, who stressed Venezuela’s determination to achieve a tough legally binding carbon cutting deal in Paris.

“I think everybody knows what the minimums are – but a maximum for my group is different to a maximum for the EU and US, so I think the crucial debate will be when we open the maximums.

“Everybody knows from 2009 what a minimal agreement looks like. But we want better than that, and there is a common understanding that after 5 years we actually have to believe we can do better. And I think we can.”

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