Bracing for tough climate talks


Bonn Climate Change Conference – May 2012

With the climate situation seemingly deteriorating, the talks resuming in Bonn today after the Durban meeting last December will be closely monitored by the world public. The world’s future may depend on it.

THE global climate change negotiations resume in Bonn today, for the first time since the turbulent annual conference of the parties in Durban last December.

The Bonn talks will be closely watched by the world public, since the climate situation seems to be deteriorating.

There have been heavy rainfall causing serious floods, for example, in Pakistan and Thailand, frequent damaging storms in the Philippines and Central and South America, and drought in parts of Africa.

Scientists have linked the higher incidence and intensity of extreme weather events to climate change.

Actions to curb global warming have however been lagging behind, despite the much-publicised frequent negotiations under the UN Climate Change Convention.

As global emissions of carbon dioxide greenhouse gases keep rising, there is a good chance that the average global temperature will rise more than 2°C above the pre-industrial revolution level, a threshold that scientists warn will cause serious effects such as sea level rise, flooding, storms, droughts and reduced agricultural yields in many parts of the world.

The present average is about 0.8°C above the pre-industrial level.

Unfortunately, the lack of adequate pledges to act (especially by the major industrialised countries) is putting the world on track for the global average temperature to rise by 3°C to 4°C or even 5°C within a century, a recipe for catastrophe that threatens the survival of civilisation or even the human species itself.

This is the background to the two-week meeting in Bonn.

Although the science and the events on the ground have been rapidly developing, the politics of reaching agreement on actions has been stuck in a familiar groove: what should developed and developing countries do to curb and cope with climate change?

Can they cooperate to bring about new economic, technological and social patterns so that actions to control climate change do not affect economic and social development?

The Bonn meeting will be quite a milestone, as it will include the inaugural plenary of the new working group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.

It is tasked with coming up with an outcome (either a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force) by 2015, in order to implement agreed climate related actions from 2020.

This new outcome will be under the UN Climate Change Convention, and be applicable to all parties, according to the decision adopted in Durban.

Partly because the Durban Platform decision was taken at literally the last hour, with many delegates not having the opportunity to fully digest its meaning, there are differing interpretations of what its key paragraphs mean.

Climate negotiators from the United States, in post-Durban speeches, have stressed the significance of the absence in the text of the terms “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibility”.

These terms are prominent in the Convention and have been much used in climate talks over the years by developing countries to argue that rich and poor countries have different obligations to curb global warming, and that the rich also have to help the poor to act through transfers of finance and technology.

According to the US, the absence of these terms means that the equity principle and the “firewall” of different types of actions by developed and developing countries are no longer valid in the new protocol or “agreed outcome” that will emerge in 2015.

Not so, claim a large group of developing countries that include China, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Bolivia.

According to them, the fact that the Durban Platform will be “under the Convention” means that the principles and provisions of the UN Climate Change Convention will apply, and “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibility” are very prominent in the Convention.

The equity issue is so hot that a special half-day workshop will be devoted to it at this Bonn session.

Another bone of contention is the term “applicable to all parties” which appears in the Durban Platform decision.

US officials have been arguing that this means there is no longer a difference between what developed and developing countries should do, and that the obligations to reduce emissions should be the same for all countries.

But many developing countries have a different interpretation. In a recent submission, India argued that this term merely restates the obvious, that any outcome of the Durban Platform negotiations will be applicable to all parties, just as the Convention or the Kyoto Protocol applies to all parties.

In between these two views, the European Union accepts the Convention principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, but argues that responsibilities and capabilities “evolve over time”.

Will countries be categorised according to their absolute economic size and total emissions, or on a per capita basis?

Whatever it is, people are more willing to act when there is a shared feeling that everyone has agreed to act in a manner that is fair to all.

The solution as to what constitutes fairness, balance and equity in allocating future actions to curb and cope with climate change was found earlier in the existing Convention and the Kyoto Protocol.

But some countries want to re-write the rules. Some who joined the Kyoto Protocol have also left or are not willing to make commitments under it.

Whether the rules should be re-written, and if so how so, will be the Gordian Knot of these negotiations. The talks will be tough. The world’s future will depend on it.

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