climate change

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

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.


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10 thoughts on “Flash points on the road to Cancun

  1. Jeremy Yapp

    Kuke, I agree that much depends on Chinese and Indian actions. But again, using the Montreal Protocol as a template for climate negotiations is fraught with danger. It’s a truism (because it’s true) but really one of the main reasons Kyoto was such a failure was that so many people thought it was going to be as easy as Montreal.

    One trouble with banning coal is that until you get wind/solar up to a sufficient level you have further concentrated fuel sources in the hands of Russia and the Middle East – not places known for stability and financial probity. Global energy security will be key to avoiding “climate wars” in the coming decades, and there are things we should ban before we ban coal. Oil extraction from tar sands, for example.

    Let’s hope CCS technology can be made to work – as much as I hate the idea, I can’t think of a way of avoiding a high probability of a more than 2C rise without it.

  2. kuke

    An outright ban of CFC should occur by 2030. I’m happy with that timeline for coal. But if we emulate the time-line, that’s closer to 2050. Probably too late for dangerous climate tipping points, but it’ll depend on Chinese and Indian actions.

  3. Jeremy Yapp

    Kenkxie, very interesting points. I agree wholeheartedly about the need for a UNFCCC, which is why I get cranky when people like Dan try to scrap the process because it’s not perfect. This is analogous to all those enlightened anti-globalisation campaigners ten years ago trying to get rid of the WTO: the single most powerful check to unscupulous trade practices, but because it’s not perfect they tried to get rid of it. Not denying that the WTO is in need of reform , obviously.

    On your last point, I spoke to some negotiators after Copenhagen and, without going into too much detail, one of the reasons it failed may have been that the Chinese were keen to give a “black eye” to Obama, just to let him know that being US prez wasn’t going to be easy. So, having done that, perhaps now the Chinese will start to negotiate in good faith. Terribly cynical, of course, but you can see why the Chinese might have been reluctant to offer Obama such a massive foreign-relations victory so early in his presidency, especially as a strong agreement at Copenhagen would have been seen as a testament to his negotiation skills and international clout – an idea the Chinese would have been anxious to undermine.

  4. 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?

  5. Jeremy Yapp

    kuke, I used to work in stratospheric ozone policy and I’m sorry, but if you think the Montreal Protocol had anything like an “outright ban” on CFCs you are totally wrong. And is the Montreal Protocol a good model for dealing with climate change? There’s an interesting story here and dozens of PhD candidates have tried to tell it over the years. In my opinion, probably not. In 1987 we knew good replacements for CFCs would come online very soon. They did. And we were pretty sure replacements for HCFCs would come along pretty soon too. By and large (but not completely) they have. A global transition to a low-carbon economy will be nothing like as easy. Also, the Montreal Protocol has vastly different requirements for developed / undeveloped countries that I don’t think anyone is expecting the rich world to allow in the climate change debate.

    So I guess we have to think of something else.

  6. kuke

    All good points from #1-3 above.

    As Phillip points out elsewhere, he grew up in Newcastle – the world’s largest thermal coal export port. We ship the coal bullets that others kill the planet with. Are we to blame? Is it the “users” or the “pushers”?

    Tobacco is slowly phasing-out across the west, but the east – like Indonesia – are still utterly addicted. Only an outright ban on new coal-fired power worldwide can give hope, as with asbestos and CFCs. Then a global move to replace steel blast furnaces with newer technology to phase-out coal altogether.

    And if you’re concerned about energy poverty, be assured that World Bank funding for dirty energy doesn’t fix it, as per this article.

  7. Jeremy Yapp

    Dan Cass:

    Got another idea have you? Which do you think is the more likely scenario:
    1. The highest-polluting countries/blocs agree to reduce emissions to mitigate climate change because they can see that every other country is doing the same thing in an agreed way, and they don’t feel too worried that they’ll lose competitive advantage for their energy industries. Also, the agreement makes the transition to a low-carbon economy easier because emerging industries have a degree of certainty that there’s a market for their products.
    2. The US Congress is completely convinced by Dan Cass’s amazing arguments and agrees to drastically reduce carbon emissions, even though there’s no global agreement to do so and it knows the US might be the only country incurring such a cost. Also, start-up low-carbon tech companies just go ahead with their innovations: who needs the security a global agreement can provide? I mean, it’s all about risk isn’t it?

    Grow up, please. Will there be a breakthrough at Cancun? Shouldn’t think so. Can it set us up for a breakthrough COP17 in December 2011? Actually, maybe it can. But it won’t if the campaigners relax the pressure.

  8. Dan Cass

    Open plea to climate activists.

    You are obviously really smart and committed to climate action, which begs the question; what are you doing at a UNFCCC meeting?

    How many decades of failure do you have to watch before you accept the reality? There will never be a binding UNFCCC agreement on deep cuts.

    I feel so sad and angry seeing how many good environmentalists and others are planning to attend Cancun in the hope of ‘The Breakthrough’. There are such better things to do with your time and intelligence than holding up the carcass of UNCED and pointing out again how unhealthy it looks.

    We are in an emergency situation which calls for the discipline of military strategy or medical triage. If it was 1950 it would be worth negotiating a global climate agreement. It is 2010; sinking effort into the agreement is a tragic opportunity cost, which prevents many other effective measures from succeeding.

    The UNFCCC was stillborn. I was at UNCED Rio in 1992 when the UNFCCC was negotiated into nothingness by the US, Saudi Arabia etc.

    Give it up and move on, for heavens sake! There is nothing more maddening that watching people make the same mistake again and again. Stop waiting for Godot.

  9. John Bennetts

    Surely, this outcome was the most probable one.

    The issue has become not a search to disciver what action can be agreed between nations.

    The issue now concerns the action which individuals and single countries can take to demonstrate that they actually feel the need for action against the common peril of anthropogenic climate change.

    So, Australia: By all means attand Cancun and its successors, but next time do not roll up empty-handed and representing the most prolific polluters on the planet on a per-capita basis. Next time, have actual stories to tell, about commitment, about action, about results. Otherwise, it is all about talk.

    The best start could and must be the search for the cheapest and quickest means of actually retiring coal-fired power stations. Hint: The French did this years ago. It’s not that difficult.

  10. 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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