Climate Talks Continue to Fail, and For Good Reason

After very little fanfare, and expectations falling even lower than the last meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP), the 17th meeting (COP17) in Durban is now past the halfway point. After the relative success of the Cancun meeting, it was hoped that the negotiators would be able to make substantial progress towards the formulation of a successor to the Kyoto Protocol

This now seems unlikely. By the end of the first day, there were reports that Canada intended not only to renege on their commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, but to withdraw from the Protocol entirely. The UK’s decision to lobby the EU on Canada’s behalf in order for the EU to accept Canadian oil from tar sands into the EU fuel mix also drew a raft of criticism. It is an inauspicious start for the meeting.

On the ground, participants report that it is the quietest COP in at least four years, since COP14 in Poznan, Poland. It is tempting to conclude that the wind is out of the sails of the international negotiations and that they have become an irrelevance. 

The opening address from the UNFCCC’s executive secretary set out the nominal targets for the talks, including the operationalization of the Cancun Agreements and addressing key unresolved political questions. She set out priorities for discussion, including a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, the pathway for financing from 2013 to 2020, and “reassuring the vulnerable.” While such ambitious thinking is laudable, the meeting can only hope to achieve minimal progress.

COP17 has, quite simply, come at the wrong time. In early December last year, there was at least a semblance of the restoration of economic robustness that could underpin what now look like extravagant claims of $100 billion per annum in climate change adaptation assistance for poorer nations through the Green Climate Fund. The consensus reached at Cancun to implement the Climate Fund is already unraveling, with the U.S. demanding greater clarity regarding the design of the fund and the mode of distribution.

The perennial focus on the negotiating positions of the U.S. and China, the top two economies and top two polluters in the world, also underlines the appearance of gridlock in the plenary rooms. The U.S. shows no sign of deviating from its entrenched position – they will not sign any new agreement that does not include binding targets for all major emitters, as well as agreed monitoring procedures. This is unacceptable to China, with no resolution likely, essentially blocking any meaningful deal.

Finally, there are strong indications that the burgeoning political power of the BASIC (or G4 – Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) countries is starting to manifest itself. This is the first year they have formally registered as a negotiating group. India’s demands to accelerate the access to adaptation technology and associated intellectual priority rights, to outlaw unilateral trade action on the basis of climate issues, and to establish equitable access to sustainable development has made even the agenda for the meeting contentious. Not only will the negotiations be difficult, but agreement on what to negotiate about has proved to be hard to reach.

COP meetings usually spring surprises, for example the passing of the Cancun Agreements last year despite the objections of Bolivia, and it is likely that this year will be the same. Nevertheless, a lack of cohesion of vision, of political will, and of finances are likely to turn this meeting into another step on the road to irreversible climate change. It’s enough to make you think they should have stayed at home and saved the travel emissions.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons