Climate talks in a bad atmosphere
The National
Chris Stanton

One by one, representatives of dozens of countries stood before UN
climate talks in Bonn on Friday to shoot down the latest effort to
advance the debate over fighting climate change.

“It should remain a non-paper and we do not wish to see it again,” a
spokesman for Egypt said of the draft that came out of two weeks of
talks in the German city.

“The recipe we put on the table and were refining the past two weeks has
been refined by you, and you present us with a very strange meal we
cannot eat,” a negotiator from Saudi Arabia told the conference

Reaching a global consensus on a topic as sensitive as energy use is
difficult in the best of conditions. But a rancourous finale for the
latest round of climate negotiations shows that countries still have a
long way to go just to set out the terms of the debate, let alone
develop confidence in an international regime to mandate changes to how
they burn fossil fuels.

Large developing countries remain doubtful that industrialised nations –
especially the US – will live up to their promises to cut emissions and
offer aid to the poorest countries.

Leaders of the industrialised world, however, say they cannot gather
support from their legislatures without more transparency on cuts in
China, India, Brazil and other big emitters to show that everyone is
sharing the burden,

Most climate scientists agree that emissions of greenhouse gases are
warming the planet and that rapid action is needed by all countries to
cut carbon dioxide output to avert catastrophic changes to sea levels
and weather patterns, including drought cycles.

Slow-moving UN climate talks, however, are unlikely to offer a solution
in the next year.

The new UN climate chief, Christiana Figueres, downplayed expectations
in her first press conference on Wednesday, saying a final deal that
satisfied everyone might never be reached.

“I do not believe we will ever have a final agreement on climate change,
certainly not in my lifetime,” she said. “If we ever have a final,
conclusive, all-answering agreement, then we will have solved this
problem. I don’t think that’s in the cards.”

Yvo de Boer, her predecessor, said “slapdash is easy, perfection takes
time” in his farewell remarks after four years as chief moderator of the

“We know that the current pledges from industrialised countries are not
sufficient to bring us into the 25 to 40 per cent range [of emissions
reductions] that the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]
projects in its most ambitious scenario, but we are on a longer
journey,” he said.

The admissions were a marked contrast in tone from last year, when UN
officials and global leaders looked to talks in Copenhagen to reach a
grand compromise. Industrialised countries would pledge big cuts, they
said, in return for good-faith efforts by China, Brazil and other big
polluters to curb emissions growth even as their economies and
populations continued to expand.

Heads of government and ministers will meet for another round of
high-level talks this December in Cancun, Mexico, but expectations are
muted. The best that leaders hope to achieve is an official negotiating
text and several firm conclusions on specific technical issues, said Antto Vihma, an expert on the UN
climate process at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in

“Of course it’s very frustrating – international law is a frustrating
field,” he said. “The overall ambience in the [UN Framework Convention
on Climate Change] is not that good, and that makes things difficult.
It’s a little over-politicised, so even agreeing technical questions is

Friday’s push-back against an outline of the terms of the debate offered
a good example.

After two weeks of talks, the conference chairwoman, Margaret
Mukahanana-Sangarwe of Zimbabwe, attempted to bring the camps closer
together by offering a list of the realistic options available to

The new draft excluded an option championed by Bolivia that would have
required industrialised countries to cut emissions by “more than 100 per
cent by 2040” for the “right of Mother Earth”.

That goal goes far beyond all mainstream climate models. The draft also
heightened the importance of a regime to measure and verify emissions
reductions in developing countries.

The Group of 77 nations and China, the umbrella bloc for the developing
world, denounced the text as “unbalanced”.

Su Wei, the representative from China, said the draft text failed to
follow the negotiating guidelines agreed on in 2007 in Bali, Indonesia.
Those guidelines stress the different responsibilities of industrialised
and developing countries.

“If we quantify the whole issue, we would say you deviated from the Bali
road map by 50 per cent.”

The US also took issue with the draft, saying it contained “a number of
ideas that the United States could not accept in an agreed outcome”.

The US – the world’s second-largest emitter – is at the crux of the
current impasse, because legislation passed by the House of
Representatives to reduce emissions is being indefinitely held up by a
sceptical Senate.

Without US action, which is seen as the first of two critical
ingredients for a deal, staving off climate change is impossible,
experts say, so other countries currently have little incentive to raise
their level of commitment.

But the biggest developing countries have baulked at the second key
ingredient of any deal: submitting to a credible process to measure and
verify voluntary commitments to cut carbon emissions.

Without some kind of verification regime, leaders of industrialised
countries say they will never be able to convince their constituents
that the burden of fighting climate change is being shared equitably
across the world.

If a deal is to come about, these two interlinked impasses must be
resolved simultaneously, Mr Vihma said.

The central issue in the impasse at Copenhagen and now at Bonn is that
the world’s biggest emitters are not yet prepared to cede control of
energy policymaking to an international regime, he said.

“The main reason is that countries are really jealous of their
sovereignty, especially the big countries like the US and BASIC [Brazil,
South Africa, India and China]. They are not ready for it,” he said.