Analysis, COP17
07 June, 2011

Bonn signals a dismal outcome for COP17

Sergio Abranches

The last official preparatory meeting before COP17, in Durban, South Africa, has started yesterday in Bonn pointing to more problems than solutions. Christiana Figueres, top UN climate official, warned the parties about the risk of inaction, but realistically acknowledged that there will likely be very few substantial decisions in Durban. She finally admitted that there is not enough time left to approve the text for a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. A regulatory gap is already unavoidable.

Warning statements by the top climate official always precede the final preparatory meetings. Yvo de Boer used to do that before Figueres. It is also on the script to voice some realistic assessments about what is possible to accomplish. Realism helps to manage expectations.

“We are putting ourselves in a scenario where we will have to develop more powerful technologies to capture emissions out of the atmosphere,” said Figueres. “We are getting into very risky territory,” she concluded to stress that time was running out.

She has also sided with the less developed countries and the small island-states observing that the target agreed upon in Copenhagen to limit global warming to around 2C is unsustainable. She supported the small countries’s plea that the world targets 1.5C instead. In Cancun, there was an agreement that at some point the 1.5C target will be considered.

“In my book, there is no way we can stick to the goal [2C] that we know is completely unacceptable to the most exposed [countries],” Figueres said, according to the Guardian.

By pushing for the 1.5C goal Figueres may get a broad majority support among the parties, but runs the risk of creating an unresolvable polarization between the smaller countries, the U.S., China, India, and Brazil. A polarization that may lead to a deadlock in negotiations. Besides, several climate scientists have told me that this is an unrealistic target given the level of GHG already accumulated in the atmosphere and the present path of emissions. Some of them think we’ve already passed even the point where the 2C limit would be feasible. Based on their opinion it seems that either 2C or 1.5C would only be achievable if we have better technology to capture GHG from the atmosphere, as Figueres suggested.

On the side of realistic statements, Figueres has finally acknowledged that an agreement is unlikely in Durban on the second period of commitment for the Kyoto Protocol. “Even if they were able to agree on a legal text”, she said, as Reuters reports, “that requires an amendment to the Kyoto Protocol, it requires legislative ratifications on the part of three-quarters of the parties, so we would assume that there’s no time to do that between Durban and the end of 2012.” A post-2012 regulatory gap is already unavoidable, and may further destabilize the already fragile carbon market. There is a broad perception among climate negotiators that no binding agreement to replace Kyoto is likely to be agreed upon before 2015.

Negotiators are even more skeptical about getting any relevant outcome from Durban because of the attitude of the South African presidency. Critics say the presidency lacks initiative. No informal meeting has been organized so far to consult the parties on a viable set of decisions that could prevent COP17 from being a total failure.

Asked about this absentee presidency, Figueres said that “South Africa has been very carefully listening, trying to understand where there are commonalities and where the weaknesses are.” It seems too little given the amount of negotiations still required to reach a consensus on a few points.

Less developed countries are very concerned about the mitigation and adaptation fund. In spite of a commitment made in Copenhagen to implement the fund, and the decision made in Cancun to put it in place, there has been no institutionalization of the fund or disbursement of money. Finding a way to make the fund real could be a fair outcome for the Durban climate talks.

A qualified and active presidency is key to prevent failure of climate talks. The transparent and pluralistic informal meetings convened by the Mexican presidency of COP16 were decisive to get the Cancun Agreements. Prime Minister Rasmussen’s attitude in the presidency of COP15 has contributed in no small amount to the crisis of confidence among parties that led the Copenhagen final session to the well-known dismal ending.

Another critical factor at climate negotiations is some degree of understanding among countries that have a leading role in the different groups among which the Parties are organized: the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China); AOSIS (small island states); African Union; and Less Developed Countries. The three BASIC big players, the U.S., and the European  Union are always decisive players. If they reach some understanding with opinion makers among the other groups, and are able to take these countries’ major interests into account, some progress could be achieved. It is the COP presidency that has the political and institutional means to propitiate situations where this preliminary understanding could be pursued. Apparently this is not happening at all.

Years of deadlocks, paralysis, and muddling-through outcomes, if and when there is some progress, have led several analysts to propose that the UNFCCC ceases to be the main forum for global climate policy-making. Some of them defend the creation of an agency similar to the World Trade Organization to become the global climate change regulatory agency. Others think that sectoral agreements and bilateral deals could pave the way to a multilateral agreement encompassing all major carbon emitters. This deal could be done within G20, and be more effective and binding than any UN-sponsored agreement.

I agree that the UNFCCC is unlikely to yield a broad and bold binding agreement in any foreseeable future. Climate change challenges us to do the maximum possible under the present technological and social conditions, as well as to keep searching for stronger technological means, short of geoengineering. The UN rules could only lead to consensus around an acceptable minimum. But , its weaknesses notwithstanding, the UNFCCC still has an important role to play.

It creates an environment where the key actors of the global society can interact and learn the ways towards global democratic governance. Government officials, NGOs, scientists, business, and the media get together to debate all topics relevant to climate change. This continuous interactions create connections, networks, allowing  all players in this complex and decisive global political game to be exposed to each others’ views and values. It is an exercise fundamental to the future of democratic and pluralistic global governance without government. An important environment to test everyone’s capabilities to become a part of this cosmopolity, of this global poliarchy. Perhaps it is not the appropriate mechanism to provide us with a strong and binding legal framework for global action on climate change, but is is a necessary piece of this machinery, in itself a work in progress.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,