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Geneva climate change talks: The lull before the storm

Countries adopt 86-page draft negotiating text for Paris agreement

Nitin Sethi  |  New Delhi 

One week of unexpectedly polite negotiations at Geneva ended on Friday with more than 190 countries adopting the first draft of a negotiating text for the 2015 global climate change agreement.

There was a good reason for the unexpected gentleness. The week had been spent by all countries and country groups merely inserting their ideas, concepts and demands into the draft. Even if they stood in complete contrast to those of others as options to choose from. The hard task of reconciling these contrasting ideas and choosing the options by consensus did not even begin at Geneva. Many observers and negotiators at Geneva referred to the talks as the lull before the storm.

The storm will begin to brew in June and build up stronger over three rounds of talks that will continue till October and culminate with two weeks of top-level meeting of countries at Paris in December 2015.

For now, the countries adopted a draft document of 86 pages. The Geneva talks had begun with a document of just 38 pages but it ballooned, as expected, when countries and groups of countries began to table their ideas counterpoising their interests against others’. All countries hope to have a far slimmer version that shall be acceptable to all countries by the end of the year.

Sebastian Duyck, a researcher at the Arctic Centre and an observer at the negotiations present at Geneva, summarised it in a tweet, “86pages, 54,000words, 1,234 square brackets here’s official draft of #Paris2015”.

When countries negotiate the text for an agreement all words, phrases and sentences that are not agreed upon by all are put inside square brackets. By negotiations the differences are ironed out and the language suitably altered before the bracket is removed to indicate that all countries have agreed to that bit. But ultimately a document, the text of the new global climate change agreement in this case, is agreed to only when all countries agree to each word in it. That the document had 1,234 square brackets signified the degree of differences that persist on what the global agreement should be.

The divergences remained fundamental at many levels. The US proposed replacing the existing differentiation between developed and developing countries. The Third World Network, an observer group at the Geneva talks, reported, “The US suggested a bifurcation approach on the basis of new annexes that that do not differentiate between developed and developing countries but on the basis of new categories of countries that could be based on World Bank criteria.”

The reason was simple. The existing differentiation takes into account accumulated historical emissions and requires countries to share the burden of fighting climate change keeping that in mind. The World Bank criteria only looks at current economic capacities of countries to fight climate change and does not apportion responsibilities on the basis of which country polluted more.

Pitching itself against this India’s negotiator Ravi S Prasad said, “The present exercise is not meant to steamroll a new convention by the backdoor with new definitions, categorisation, annexes,” It was supported by China and other developing countries. Malaysia, speaking for the Like-Minded Developing Countries, of which India and China are part, said this suggestion of the US was a dangerous route to travel and sowed the seeds of collapse.

The EU advocated delinking the developed world commitments on finance and technology transfer from actions that developing countries will take in future to reduce emissions. It suggested that the Paris agreement should focus on mitigation — or reducing emissions — and other issues should be detailed out in less onerous legal formats called ‘decisions of the Conference of Parties (COP)’. The US had similar views. This was strongly opposed by most developing countries, including India, which said it was against anything that drives towards a mitigation-centric agreement at the core and relegates all other elements to COP decisions. Another key fight that caught attention was the push to create market-based mechanisms that would provide cheaper offset options for developed countries to cut the costs of their climate actions. Developing countries warned that unless greenhouse emission cuts from the rich countries were deep enough they would not wish to move on a global carbon market.

As of now these and many other arguments remain embedded in the form of bracketed text adopted at Geneva. “We have a full menu of options at this point, the tough bit starts now to find a diet that fits all appetites and does enough to ramp up climate action to the point it is required,” said a senior developing country negotiator at the end of the Geneva talks speaking to <I>Business Standard</I>. “The question really is are we going to drive the agreement down to match the highest expectations of the least ambitious but powerful countries? Or can we enhance real climate action under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change through the Paris agreement?” he added.

The countries will meet next in June, August and October at Bonn, Germany, over repeated rounds of negotiations to reduce their differences before the big summit at Paris in December, where heads of states are expected to come together just as they did during the failed Copenhagen summit in 2009. But, hopefully, not fail this time.

Questions that were debated at Geneva but will be answered by the end of 2015
  • On what basis and how often should all commitments of countries under Paris agreement be reviewed?
  • Should historical emissions not be accounted while apportioning the burden of climate action?
  • Will the Paris agreement be mainly about reducing emissions but sideline issue of technology and finance?
  • Will a full powerful mechanism to address loss and damage from climate inaction be part of the main Paris agreement?
  • Can the world afford a global carbon market even when countries take low emission reduction targets?
  • How will existing institutions and actions on climate change fit in to a new agreement post-2020

First Published: Sat, February 14 2015. 22:17 IST