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Oct 8, 2010

Flash points on the road to Cancun

Phillip Ireland writes from the UN climate talks in China: War poetry was evoked on the floor of the main plenary at the UN climate negotiations this week. A E

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Phillip Ireland writes from the UN climate talks in China: War poetry was evoked on the floor of the main plenary at the UN climate negotiations this week. A European Union negotiator reflected upon the disastrous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade‘ against Russian artillery in 1854, which French army general Pierre Bosquet famously declared:

C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie (“It’s magnificent, but it’s not war: it’s madness”).

The EU negotiator brought the United Nations gathering to a standstill when he reflected on the week and said: “It’s magnificent, but it’s not negotiation.”

The UN climate talks in Tianjin are coming to an end. This was the last negotiation before the high level UN climate change summit in Cancun, Mexico this December. So far the talks have been mixed with only marginal progress. We face several flashpoints as we head rapidly down the road to Cancun.

Negotiations have been stalled in the sessions around the legal framework for the climate treaty. Discussions about proposed amendments to the Kyoto Protocol — some of which would make marked improvements — have been blocked all week.

During the first session the chair was cut off during his introduction. One after the other several countries, led by China and Brazil, objected to the plans for the negotiating group. They insisted on a narrow interpretation of the mandate for the Kyoto working group — restricted to new mitigation targets — and refused to discuss proposals to amend it. A few countries subsequently challenged these objections, led by Australia, whose negotiator said they were “mystified!” as to why this was happening. Then the same countries objected to these counter objections. And so on.

Unfortunately this trend has continued throughout the week. Yesterday I attended a meeting where the very same set of speeches were being given. Some of the nations claimed that their questions were about process, however, in my opinion these were simply blocking tactics. On and on it went until one negotiator exclaimed: “I am having an existential crisis. What am I doing here?”

It was a very good question.

The essence of this conflict is about what, and who, goes first. China and others want rich countries to commit to greenhouse gas reduction targets before other discussions are held about changes to the Protocol. Conversely, countries like Australia want the legal framework to be established before they commit to targets bound by that target. Like so many conflicts in these negotiations, both positions have some legitimacy, yet both slow overall progress.

There is also a flashpoint emerging around an issue called ‘MRV’. This increasingly used acronym stands for Measurable, Reportable and Verifiable. In essence, it is about transparency — keeping track of countries greenhouse gas reduction and financing commitments. The real sticking point in MRV is the Verification component (there is another acronym within this called ICA… but I will save you the pain and not explain that). Verification involves international observers being able scrutinise mitigation and financing commitments and reporting.

In short, the international community needs confidence that commitments and actions undertaken by developed and developing countries are being fulfilled. We need to ensure, for example, that money for adaptation for the most vulnerable is, in fact, new and additional.

The “you first” standoff is plaguing these negotiations. Some countries seem to be holding back on a range of issues waiting for others to play their cards first. There is a mistrust that is lingering. Countries are worried they will get caught in an agreement that treats them unfairly and places onerous obligations upon them. And in some cases, countries are seeking to get the upper hand on others, to advantage their economies in the long run.

There is no denying it. There is a competitive element to these UN climate negotiations that hampers progress. Most countries are genuinely trying to balance give and take. Some progress is being made, but the sense of urgency is lacking.

These negotiations need to better reflect the urgency that is being felt around the globe. Communities, particularly those that are poor and vulnerable, stand to lose so much as a result of human-induced climate change. It is grossly unjust to these communities if our nations fail to secure a fair, ambitious and binding international climate treaty.

But there remains some cause for hope. In a few days time, on 10/10/10, we will witness the Global Work Party. This day will see well over 7,000 events around the globe where communities will take practical action to cut carbon and build a clean energy future. Our leaders and our negotiations should take heed of these courageous and sacrificial actions. They should feel challenged and encouraged.

As we head to Cancun, countries need to engage in ‘magnificent’ negotiation. Negotiation that is both ambitious and generous. Negotiation that reflects the urgency of climate change and is humbled by the great responsibility. We need this. For the sake of our environment, and all humanity that depends upon it.

Phil Ireland is blogging from China for the international Adopt A Negotiator project. He is also a PhD candidate researching adaptation to climate change in the Global South.

Philip Ireland —

Philip Ireland

Phil Ireland is blogging from the UN negotiations in Cancun as part of Oxfam Australia's UN Climate Tracker project as well as for the TckTckTck Adopt A Negotiator project. He is also a Ph.D. candidate at Macquarie University, researching adaptation to climate change and development in Nepal, Bangladesh and at international climate negotiations.

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10 thoughts on “Flash points on the road to Cancun

  1. kenkxie

    @Roger: That’s talking about monitoring the effects of GHG gases on the Earth’s climate, once they’re already in the atmosphere. Satellites do have an important role to play in measuring rates of deforestation and biomass in forests, but to my knowledge they’re not yet sophisticated enough to detect precise quantities of CO2 emitted from factories, power plants and the tailpipes of millions of cars…

    On the contrary, verification is a real issue because it pertains to a country’s national sovereignty. The stakes are not not quite as high as those involving UN weapons inspectors, for instance, but those are the kinds of considerations in play.

    @John: agreed on the first point. Hence the Global Work Party today (10/10/10). Also agreed on the fact that Australia needs to take a real, credible position on emissions reductions into Cancun.

    A slight quibble on your comment on the French however, if you will permit (I live in France). It’s still an open question whether it has been cost-effective domestically in France to convert massively to nuclear power. Certainly it has had economic benefits in terms of exporting their technology and expertise. But it may well be that the true costs are not known for years to come, when it comes to dismantling defunct reactors and dealing with the waste products.

    @Dan & Jeremy: Three things about the UNFCCC negotiations. Firstly, much like democracy, it’s a crappy system but it’s the best we’ve got. Secondly, climate change mitigation is much like the prisoner’s dilemma – everyone’s waiting for everyone else to act first, and so you need to put everyone together at the table and get them to cooperate. Finally, you have to recognise that climate change is not just about mitigation but also adaptation – and development. So unless you’re comfortable with keeping millions of people in poverty and condemning millions more to suffering the impacts of floods, hurricanes, droughts, heatwaves and rising sea levels without a proper framework to deal with adaptation and migration, as well as excluding them from a seat at the table and a say in their future, then you need the UNFCCC.

    @Phil: what do you make of the statement of (I think) the Chinese lead negotiator that he didn’t think MRV was an unassailable issue in Cancun? Just talk, or do you think that the Chinese are willing to compromise to some extent on the thorny issue of verification?

    Another question – do you see any way of getting around this dynamic of mistrust that you describe? Any way of inverting it by changing the process? Or is it just something that we’ll have to work with and hope that something gives at the eleventh hour?

  2. Roger Clifton

    Why should verification be such a problem? For some time now, greenhouse gas emissions can be monitored from space.

    Perhaps no nation actually wants to cut their greenhouse gas emissions at all. They just want to bicker about their token gestures, empty of effect and eventually to be condemned by history.

    A few climatic disasters might speed things up a bit.

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