08 December, 2010

World climate deal pending on unsaid words

Sergio Abranches

Every delegate is saying the same words here in Cancun. All press briefings and all plenary statements include the same set of keywords to login into the general conversation: balanced package, compromise, transparency. But the deal is depending on the words that have not been said. Unsaid words have become the core password to an agreement.

Keywords need to be clearly defined. This is one the hardest tasks delegates are tackling right now. A goal, can be a “target” – i.e. legally binding – or an “action” – i.e. voluntary, although both can be equally quantified, reported and monitored. Each term or acronym has to be turned into an operational concept.

Take, for instance, the new words for transparency in the vocabulary of the Climate Convention: ICA – International Consultation and Analysis. This was an idea that emerged out of the creativeness and improvisation during the tough and tense negotiations between president Barack Obama and prime-minister Wen Jiabao, on a BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) meeting in the last hours of the Copenhagen Summit. Indian prime-minister Manmohan Singh and Brazilian president Lula da Silva intermediated the talks on transparency, contributing formula after formula that could lead to an understanding. To each formulation Obama agreed to, China would said no. Until they reached the “international consultation and analysis” solution. To that Wen Jiabao said yes. And that’s all they agreed upon about transparency in Copenhagen. Now, everybody has to agree on what these three words entail.

India has a fair idea on this issue, and has circulated a “non-paper” describing the procedures to be labeled as ICA – International Consultation and Analysis. U.S. Chief negotiator wants to know the level of detail to be reported and to whom: a panel of experts? Can other countries make questions, ask for clarifications? It seems that India is ready to say yes to all. So is China. Word is that the three have already reached an agreement on ICA and are about to announce it. A Brazilian diplomat told me that there still are some refinements needed for consensus to be reached. But the Brazilian solution is not very different from what has apparently been agreed upon the other three. To Brazil, ICA should parallel MRV, the monitoring, reporting and verification procedures under the Kyoto Protocol. On his first press briefing Xe Zhenhua, China chief negotiator, said that ICA should have the same frequency of MRVs, and could ask no more than MRVs asks from Annex I countries (Kyoto Protocol). He also said that China and India have already reached consensus on the subject of mechanisms of transparency.

This is the way to go. Specify each set of terms. Put the specifications on paper. Hope that all would add up to a consistent, systemic agreement on climate change. If the parts make an acceptable whole, they would have to agree whether it will become a legally binding agreement or not.

If negotiators agree that the package is to become a legal agreement – either a new Protocol or a Treaty – that will not happen in Cancun. There are hundreds of minute details to deal with, great many specifications to be agreed upon. It may take another year or two of tough drafting before we can have a new global legally binding climate change agreement.

China has already said it has no objection to sign a legally binding agreement. The U.S. said that “the ultimate goal is to reach a legally binding agreement”. Brazil said that “if the package is strong, yes, we should turn it into a legally binding agreement. If decisions are weak, no, we should not crystallize weak compromises on a legal document.” India has not said whether it would enter a legally binding accord. Japan wants a new legally binding agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. All groups representing developing countries as well as developing countries with advanced economies (BASIC, for instance) say the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol is a sine qua non for a new agreement.

Will we have a legally binding deal? Will it be a strong, sufficient deal as far as the science of climate is concerned? The answer is no. Not now. Not in the near future.

Why, then, keep negotiating this impossible deal in the Climate Convention? For two main reasons. First of all, it is a forum where the key issues necessary to design global effective action on climate change can be professionally, technically and politically discussed and negotiated. Secondly, the fact that all countries interact trying to develop a shared view about key climate change issues and are exposed to a high volume flow of cross-information represents an important driver for domestic change. Dialogue and exposure help to increase awareness and knowledge about the possibilities and advantages of tackling climate change and moving towards a low-carbon society. The interaction among countries also creates many opportunities for bilateral and multilateral arrangements regarding specific areas of cooperation on climate change. Delegates are exposed to global and domestic civil society organizations and feel the pressure for action. Entering into conflict resolution situations is an important element of the process of global confidence-building. In short, these demanding days of talks and deals are important to domestic decision-making.

A multilateral institutional setting, and a global legally binding accord on climate change will play an important role in putting together into a coherent whole the legal domestic decisions on climate change. Only a multilateral registry with comparable measurement and reporting procedures will allow all to assess whether their combined action will be sufficient to prevent a climatic catastrophe.

An assembly of more than 190 disparate countries will hardly deliver a strong deal on such a complex matter as climate change. But it provides an institutional setting that help countries to better understand what are the stakes, the costs and benefits of action and inaction and becomes a strong driver for domestic change. These talks have already helped many countries to advance on domestic climate change policies through cross-pressure and cross-fertilization over the years. Afterwards it will provide an adequate institutional setting for the formalization of domestic goals into a multilateral registry of domestic and international legally binding emissions targets.

The unsaid words on which the world depends to tackle climate change will first have to be pronounced in each country’s own language, and legalized by each country’s political system before we can have a strong and binding global accord. And to get there the climate change talks under the UNFCCC are an indispensable tool.

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