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UN climate talks in Bonn from Aug 31-Sept 4

Looking for a balanced core agreement to hold the Paris package together

Nitin Sethi  |  New Delhi 

UN climate talks in Bonn from Aug 31-Sept 4

Global leaders of countries, businesses, leading organisations and even faiths have begun asking each other and their followers to approach the Paris climate change agreement talks with positivity. However, the definition of what is 'positive' continues to vary for each country at the formal negotiations.

While the rhetoric gets louder, climate negotiators from 195 countries have gathered at Bonn, Germany, to begin the final lap to Paris. Another week of negotiations will be held from Monday.

The co-chairs of the talks, one from America and another from Algeria, have segregated the issues into three sections for the negotiators. One part is the core agreement that would be signed at Paris, meant to endure for a long while, to guide climate change action. The second section of issues will take the shape of decisions that are of a less permanent nature than the core agreement.

The third set - a rather long one - is of issues that the co-chairs realise are critical to the talks but don't know where and how the countries want these to be fitted in. Collectively these three sets of issues form the Paris package.

For each issue, there are several alternatives on the table, many distinctly contradictory. Consequently the document containing all these, on all the issues, is a humongous 83 pages of text in font size 8.

Pledge-and-review approach
In the ensuing week, the negotiators are tasked to narrow down their differences and, consequently, the agreement text. For the negotiators, the rhetoric outside the meeting rooms is irrelevant. They are tasked to stick with the script their political leaders have laid down, which does not necessarily match the rhetoric. The script for the negotiators has clear dos and don'ts, things they can be flexible at and issues they should never give in at the talks.

"The US might be talking loudly of positive action and the European Union might be trying to retrieve its position after Copenhagen (where the meeting failed in 2009) as the global environmental leader but if you look at the submissions they or their allies push in the negotiating text, you discover what is 'positively' in favour of their national interests is not necessarily so for other countries," said a negotiator from a developing country that is a member of the Like Minded Group of Developing Countries.

The Bonn climate change challenge for India is to reflect its ambitious climate actions but not give up its non-negotiables
  • There are now three distinct parts of the Paris package, including one enduring core agreement at the heart
  • The core part of the package needs to have India’s interests on finance and technology on an equal footing.

    At the moment, it does not

  • The review of mitigation action has to be linked strongly to review of finance and technology commitments of the developed world
  • Differentiation needs to be embedded in the overarching preamble and then operationalised in each pillar of the Paris agreement — mitigation, review, finance, technology sharing and capacity building
  • The package needs to not only ‘request’ but ‘demand’ more pre-2020 action by developed countries

"I think all country heads are acting positively but no head of a country tells his or her negotiator to be positive at the cost of national interest, which the non-negotiable red lines lay down. I would advise observers to view the political headlines on climate change against the proposals in the negotiating text to get a better understanding," she added.

The text makes it clear that the Paris agreement will be along the lines of a pledge-and-review system. Every country pledges some action and after a time period, all nations collectively assess if that would be enough and what more needs to be done to fight climate change. At the moment, the pledges from the developed world are clear indicators that by 2020, the world would not have committed enough to keep global temperatures under reasonable limits.

US-EU cooperation
The scenario for the Bonn meeting shows that within this larger frame, there are many arguments to be fought over. The US and the EU are collectively keen that the core and enduring agreement at Paris should focus primarily on two things. One, is the actions countries take to reduce emissions and how the differential between developed and emerging economies can be reduced on this count. Two, how to ensure a uniform set of rules apply to all countries when it comes to communicating, implementing and assessing these actions.

In this, the EU and its allies suggest a slightly more rigid system, like that of an international inspector raj. The US favours a gentler version of multilateral consultation. The difference between EU and US on the issue of assessing countries does not take away from the arrangement the two giants at the climate talks would like to achieve, with their allies.

Maintaining the enduring core of the Paris agreement on mitigation and assessing countries primarily for their mitigation action ensures that their own (US and EU) obligations for providing finance and resources for technology and capacity building (referred to as Means of Implementation, or MOI) become legally less onerous. At the moment, developing country actions to reduce emissions are predicated on how much finance, technology and capacity building resources the rich world provides.

If the core Paris agreement and the attendant other decisions review and measure adequacy of mitigation action more stringently than the review of MOI commitments, the EU, US and other rich countries would have achieved a crack in the differentiation between developed and developing world, without needing to say so explicitly. This would be to the disadvantage of middle income developing countries, such as India.

A change in weather
The text before the negotiators at Bonn for this week has several such options alive on the table.

India and China see eye to eye with the US that the review process should not be too onerous. The three are also on nearly the same page about how legally bound countries should be for achieving their targets (called INDCs). The EU has differing submissions before the UN talks on this. But, on the linkage between MOI with the mitigation actions of developing countries, on an evenly balanced core Paris agreement and a differential in the rules of review, the traditional lines between countries are drawn hard - China, India and many other developing countries on one side and the rich on the other.

"There is a lot of work to be done between now and Paris. It's usually to the disadvantage of developing countries when political leaders are left to sit over a long list of unresolved differences in the small print at the last moment. Copenhagen is proof of that," says an observer at the Bonn talks, wishing to remain anonymous.

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First Published: Sun, August 30 2015. 23:45 IST