05 December, 2011

Words of consensus, meanings apart

Sergio Abranches, from Durban

Negotiators from the United States, China and Brazil said today in their press briefings that they agree with a legally binding climate change agreement for all countries by 2020. To sign into a second period of commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, the European Union has set as a condition that major emitters agree to a roadmap and timeline towards a common legally binding agreement to enter into force no later than 2020.

The negotiators of the three large emitters outside the reach of the Kyoto Protocol have also said that their countries already have targets for emissions reductions to 2020. These targets were presented in Copenhagen and reaffirmed under the Cancun Agreement that was officially approved by the plenary of the parties to the Climate Convention. The EU does not oppose to these targets, but wants more transparency regarding their pursuit.

Both US special climate change envoy, Todd Stern, and the Brazilian lead negotiator, ambassador Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, defended a legally binding agreement to all, without conditionalities. Stern added  that this agreement should establish legal parity among all parties. Figueiredo preferred to say it should be rule-based and top-down. By that, he meant a multilateral arrangement by which the reduction emissions needed would be objectively set, and the countries would negotiate how to share the volume of emissions cuts required. Chinese minister Xie Zenhua stated that his country “would be happy with a legally binding treaty that includes it – but not until 2020, and not without five conditions”.

All three negotiators were keen to clarify that their countries are already working to meet the targets of emissions reduction they pledged in Copenhagen and reaffirmed in Cancun. They affirmed that Cancun was a multilateral agreement in force under the Climate Convention. The targets, are formal and serious, although not binding. Figueiredo and Xie added that their countries’ targets are legally-binding domestically. Figueiredo explained that they are a part of a law vote by the Brazilian Congress, and enacted by president Lula. Xie said the Chinese targets were approved by the People’s Congress, making them domestically binding. Todd Stern said that all the countries with pledges under the Copenhagen and Cancun agreements are taking action to fulfill them.

The US Congress failed to vote a climate change law. But negotiators from the BASIC countries and the US kept reminding the press that they have formal pledges under a multilateral agreement that has been approved by the plenary of the Climate Convention. Although they are not legally binding, they are a part of an official agreement under a treaty to which they all are parties. Stern said his country takes its pledges “deadly seriously”.

Todd Stern said, however, that he doesn’t think China is ripe to sign into a legally binding agreement on the terms the US proposes. A negotiator from the BASIC group explained that Washington intends to eliminate the principle of common but differentiated obligations as a basis of a future agreement. No BASIC country would agree to that he concluded.

It is clear that the negotiators are using the same language, and often the same expressions, but framed to have different meanings. Nevertheless the use of the same language, and expressions is not a random coincidence. It is an intended coincidence with political meaning. It signalizes they all are seeking to reach a middle ground in Durban, although they are still separated by a significant difference in meanings.

Todd Stern called the EU proposal for a roadmap, as the definition of a process to reach a legal agreement binding to all by 2020. Ambassado Figueiredo, also preferred to use “process”, instead of a roadmap, to differentiate it from the “Bali Roadmap” not fully implemented yet. When he spoke about the desired outcomes in Durban, he mentioned the full implementation of the Bali Action Plan and Roadmap, and the full operationalization of the Cancun Agreement. Stern said he country is opposed to decide on the legal format of the future agreement, before knowing who will be into it, and how. A well informed negotiator said that it would be more appropriate to negotiate the process, without predetermining the complete legal nature of its intended outcome.

The greater coincidence in the use of catch phrases regards the “full operationalization of the Cancun Agreement”. Negotiators offer the same short list of decisions that would make the Cancun Agreements “fully operational”. They all mention the operational definition of a transparency  regime, i.e. a common system of accounting for emissions reductions and verification; the structure of governance and a guaranty of the flow of resources into the fund to meet the commitment to reach US$ 100 billion a year to 2020; the full design of the technology and adaptation mechanisms.

All major negotiators have also mentioned the review of the Copenhagen/Cancun pledges  by 2015 to determine whether they are coherent with the common 2C target.

This same short list, with slight differences of detail, is almost equal to Xie Zenhua’s five conditions to accept a legally binding agreement by 2020. Brazil and China also insisted that a second period of commitment under the Kyoto Protocol is a central priority in Durban.

There are important divergencies on the details of almost every step required to make the Cancun Agreements fully operational. There is no consensus, for instance, on the methodology and implementation of the transparency regime; on the governance of the Green Climate Fund and on how to ensure that money will be forwarding to the fund; to details of the implementation of actions on technology and adaptation. Negotiators are likely to find a common ground to have a sort of “Cancun package’ to deliver in Durban.

The major political problem to solve regards the second period of the Kyoto Protocol. The executive secretary of UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres said that there is no doubt about the if, all discussion is on how they will arrive at a second period of commitments. Apart from Canada, Japan and Russia, all developed countries that are parties to the Protocol have no objection to a second period of commitments. What they are asking for is the reassurance that the countries that are not a party to it will seriously pursue their goals of emissions reductions, and will take concrete and defined steps towards designing, approving and signing into a new agreement that will be legally binding to all by 2020.

Connie Hedegaard, the European Union Climate Change Commissioner, said on her press conference that the EU is “ready to commit to a a second period”, even with a smaller number of parties”, but asks for “the mutual reassurance that we will move on towards a new legally-binding agreement committing all major emitters.”

Convergence among these four countries — EUA, China, European Union and Brazil — will set the basis of a Durban deal. If they agree on a package deal, the other countries may follow suit. The penalty for not aligning to what the major players are willing to approve would be to leave South Africa empty handed. There is the possibility, as Copenhagen has shown, that a small group of “kamikaze” countries would rather see nothing short of what they see as the necessary outcome approved at all. To counter that there would be the precedent created in Cancun, whereby the unanimity clause was replaced by a consensus clause, to prevent a kamikaze veto” to an agreement supported by an overwhelming majority. “Consensus is not an absolute unanimity”, ruled COP16 president, Patricia Espinosa.

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