Climate Policy Update No. 3 - Monday, 1 June 2009
An Overview of the Multilateral Climate Negotiations
By Chris Spence, Deputy Director, IISD Reporting Services (IISD RS)
Chris Spence, Deputy Director, IISD RS
Chris Spence
Success depends upon preparation and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.” Confucius

If preparation is the key to success, does this mean Copenhagen will be a triumph? Since the Bali roadmap was agreed 18 months ago, an almost endless procession of preparatory meetings has taken place both within and outside the official UN process. Recently, the UNFCCC’s Ad Hoc Working Groups (AWGs) met in Bonn in April. These were followed by various other relevant gatherings, including the “Major Economies Forum” events in Washington DC and Paris, and a G8 energy ministers’ meeting in Rome.

Yet in spite of this frenzied activity many pundits now fear Copenhagen will end in disappointment. Environmentalists fret that a “weak” result is likely – a result that will not bring about the urgent changes the scientific community agrees are needed.

So, how have events in April and May affected the prospects for Copenhagen?

Unpacking the UNFCCC
The primary aim for the AWGs’ sessions in April was quite modest. Delegates were expected to deliver at least the basis for a future negotiating text (or texts) that will be finalized in Copenhagen. Developing these texts at this stage is important for one simple reason: under UN Climate Convention rules, any proposed amendment needs to be communicated by parties at least six months before the meeting at which it is adopted. This means that June is the cut-off point for the submission of any draft text to amend the Convention in Copenhagen in December (for instance, through a new Protocol or an amendment to the existing Protocol).

In this respect, the AWG meetings in April delivered what was expected. Relevant documents were discussed under both the AWG-KP (which deals with industrialized countries’ mid-term targets under the Kyoto Protocol) and the AWG-LCA (which addresses wider actions and/or commitments from all parties to the Convention).

In reality, the documents considered in April did not look remotely like the outcomes that may emerge in Copenhagen. All were essentially collections of ideas from parties – “wish lists” of what different countries hope to achieve. However, the April AWGs did at least start work on elaborating ideas for a future agreement and developing these documents in earnest. They also agreed that texts should be further refined by the AWG Chairs in the lead-up to the next session starting on 1 June.

True to this agreement, revised texts have recently been released by the AWG Chairs that will be the focus of discussions in June. The AWG-LCA negotiating text was released on 19 May, and two AWG-KP documents were published online on 15 May. The two AWG-KP documents deal with emission reduction commitments from industrialized countries post-2012, and with related issues such as emissions trading, the Clean Development Mechanism, and land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF). The AWG-LCA text covers a broad range of issues relating both to developed and developing countries, and including the key “building blocks” of adaptation, mitigation, finance and technology.

Looking Outside the UNFCCC
Since the April AWGs, there have been several meetings outside the UN that are highly relevant to the Copenhagen process. For a start, the first two meetings of the Major Economies Forum were held in Washington DC and Paris. An initiative of the Obama Administration, the Forum seeks to generate political will at a high level among the key players in the international negotiating process. While the initial meetings in April and late May certainly generated some public interest and positive discussions on the needs of developing countries, most observers seem to feel that they have not yet delivered any major impetus. A third meeting is scheduled for 22-23 June, in Mexico.

Meanwhile, the G8 process has also been preparing for its own big event in July. The latest meeting of energy ministers took place from 24-25 May, and sought to define joint strategies for addressing climate change. The leaders’ summit is scheduled for 8-10 July in L’Aquila, Italy.

In spite of these formal multilateral events, much of the focus in recent weeks has actually been on domestic preparations and pronouncements in two key countries – China and the US. Observers have identified reasons for both hope and concern.

America Prepares
In the US, the Obama Administration has been pressing for domestic legislation to tackle climate change, with a cap-and-trade system as a major component.

While the international community has warmly welcomed such endeavors, the picture may not be as rosy as it first appears. First, US emissions have increased significantly since 1990, meaning that it would be extremely difficult for the US to match Europe’s target of cutting emissions 20-30% by 2020 compared with 1990 levels (which is the baseline year for the Kyoto targets).

The draft legislation proposed in April by US Congressmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey endeavored to walk that fine line between environmental ambition and political reality. It did not bring the US to a “comparability of effort” with the EU if 1990 is to be used as the international baseline for targets. However, it did contain a wide array of ideas and objectives, including a national goal of 20% reductions on 2005 greenhouse gas emission levels by 2020.

While this new approach certainly represents a sea change in US policy, it has also raised disquiet in some circles. Environmentalists and developing country policy makers alike have argued that more is needed to seal a deal in Copenhagen that the South can support, while also answering scientists’ concerns.

Although these new US goals may not be ambitious enough for some, for others they appear to be too lofty. A sizeable political group on Capitol Hill immediately expressed concerns about the impact on the economy and jobs. In the back room debates that followed, a number of changes were apparently made to satisfy US lawmakers in the committee negotiations. The compromise package scaled back the 2020 goal from 20 to 17% reductions.

This new legislation has yet to pass into law, although many experts believe it has a stronger chance of doing so than any of its predecessors.

Chinese Proposals
There has also been some noteworthy news from China in recent weeks. For instance, some Western media reported that a Chinese official has mooted the option of emissions targets for his country after 2020. This has certainly raised interest (and eyebrows) in certain groups. In addition, an article from a Chinese think tank that proposed differentiating between various groups of developing countries also caught some attention. Neither idea has received official endorsement from the Chinese Government, but both suggest that officials may be striving to think outside the box in order to find constructive global solutions.

A Joint Answer?
Another interesting report to have surfaced in recent days suggests that there have been “secret talks” between China and the US on climate change. According to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, these talks signify a desire by the world’s two biggest polluters to show leadership on the issue. While the article added that no agreement has yet been reached, it does reflect a school of thought that a handful of key parties may need to make a deal that would then be taken to a broader group under the UN umbrella in Copenhagen or elsewhere.

What to Expect at the June Talks
Few would expect any such deal to be reached in the coming weeks, though. In fact, most climate experts’ attention is set to turn back firmly to the UN process as the next round of talks begins in Bonn.

The June talks in Bonn are quite significant, because delegates will be expected to enter “full negotiating mode” and address some very thorny issues. As they leave behind the so-called “confidence building” and “exchange of ideas” stage, diplomats will be expected to begin their consideration of draft negotiating texts in earnest.

Legal Questions…
Participants will need to give serious consideration to the legal form a Copenhagen agreement should take. This is an issue that some have scrupulously avoided so far. Currently, significant differences remain over what should actually come out of Copenhagen – for instance, whether there should be a new Protocol, amendments to Kyoto, non-binding decisions, or a combination of these. Differences both on the legal form of any outcome and on the details it contains are likely to become even more apparent in Bonn now that negotiating texts are on the table. On the legal framework, what may emerge from Bonn is a range of options and submissions that delegates will need to pick from in Copenhagen. It is worth noting that failure to table any particular option in Bonn means that an outcome in Copenhagen that adopts that specific option may not be legally binding.

…And Substantive Ones, Too
While no concrete substantive outcomes can be expected in Bonn, the June talks are likely to see some interesting discussions across a range of topics. Under the AWG-KP, there is likely to be sustained pressure from developing countries for a clear vision of what industrialized nations will commit to with regards to mid-term emissions targets. This element is seen as a critical demonstration of good faith and commitment from the North. However, as is usually the case with such negotiations, it is unlikely that any component of a final package will be agreed prior to Copenhagen. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” is a well-worn phrase in diplomatic circles, and one that will almost certainly apply in Bonn.

Under the AWG-LCA, there are likely to be discussions on the “comparability” of mitigation efforts by developed countries – which is essentially code for discussing how actions by the US (which is not a party to Kyoto) will stack up against others. On the developing country side, there could be further attempts to discuss the possible differentiation of developing countries (something many in the Group of 77 have so far opposed). There may also be efforts to develop some of the details about how the idea of “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” might work for developing countries. 

Can Good Preparation Really Guarantee Success?
In spite of all of this activity and careful preparation, it seems clear at this stage that there can be no guarantee of success in Copenhagen. The process is so complex, and the stakes are now so high, that even the most optimistic observer would be likely to stop short of predicting an unqualified triumph.

Yet if preparation cannot guarantee success, then surely a lack of it would ensure failure. The seemingly endless procession of meetings is certainly difficult for those involved, and could even prove fruitless in the end. Nevertheless, these meetings seem to offer the only possible path towards an agreed global framework in Copenhagen. Over the coming months, our colleagues in the Earth Negotiations Bulletin team will attend and analyze every round of UN talks, while Climate-L’s Daily News Feed will continue to bring you updates on the latest events, proposals and achievements. 
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