The Climate Change Negotiations Resume

by Dan Bodansky

Bonn Negotiations Get Underway

The climate change “negotiations” resumed this week in Bonn.  I put “negotiations” in quotes (or as they say here in England, “inverted commas”) because there has been little negotiating over the past 18 months since the Bali Action Plan was adopted. (The UNFCCC web site characterizes the sessions this week as “talks”.)  Indeed, there is as yet no “negotiating text,” only a series of proposals – or fragments of proposals – by states.

In theory, the negotiations are supposed to conclude in December at the Copenhagen Conference. But meeting this deadline will require a tremendous acceleration in the pace of the negotiations. States are still not even agreed on the legal character of the Copenhagen outcome, let alone the substantive content of a post-Kyoto regime.  As a result, the likely outcome in Copenhagen will be a partial agreement, establishing some architectural elements but leaving much of the substance for later elaboration.

I don’t envy the negotiators.  The new Obama envoy Todd Stern (and his deputy Jonathan Pershing) — both

Todd Stern at Swearing In with Hilary Clinton

Todd Stern at Swearing In with Hilary Clinton

old hands from the Clinton years — face huge expectations from the EU and many developing countries, but can’t get too far out front of US domestic politics without risking the same fate as Kyoto.  (A 95-0 negative vote in the Senate before the treaty was even adopted.) The reality is that Congress is unlikely to pass climate legislation this year, that even the most forward-leaning proposals before Congress fall well short of the Kyoto targets (let alone EU proposals for much more amibitious targets for the next commitment period),  and that getting the Senate’s advice and consent to ratification of a new treaty will be difficult no matter how favorable the outcome for the US.  Meanwhile, although China and other developing countries have adopted national climate programs, they still remain strongly opposed to any binding international commitments. Thus far, the most “progressive” proposal by developing countries has been to establish a “registry” that they could use to record their “nationally-appropriate mitigation actions” (NAMAs). As a result, the EU may, in the end, need to decide whether a weak agreement that disappoints their domestic constituencies is better than none at all.

Until now, states have been able to rationalize the lack of progress in the negotiations on the ground that progress was impossible without the United States. And it is certainly true that the Bush Administration’s unwillingness to consider new climate  commitments created a tremendous roadblock. But the notion that US reengagement will unlock the negotiations oversimplifies the situation considerably. Although US special envoy Todd Stern said this week in Bonn that the US is fully committed to action, he noted that it would be guided by a combination of science and pragmatism (my emphasis) and emphasized the importance of “defin[ing] a path forward that will be supported by the people that we serve.”  Not surprisingly, President Obama’s announced goal of returning US emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 falls well short of what many other countries would like (although his longer term target of reducing US emissions by 80% by 2050 is comparable in ambition to the EU).

The negotiations are currently fragmented between two groups that meet in parallel.  The Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action under the Convention (or AWG-LCA) was established by the Bali Action Plan in December 2007, and has a comprehensive mandate under the Framework Convention to address mitigation, adaptation, finance and technology.  (For a discussion of the Bali Action Plan, see my earlier post on Opinio Juris.) The Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) has a more limited mandate to consider another round of emission commitments by developed countries under the Kyoto Protocol.

How these processes will fit together remains unclear.  I think it’s fair to say that the AWG-LCA is the more central of the two, since it’s the more inclusive process.  Kyoto parties are unlikely to accept new emission commitments in the AWG-KP unless these commitments are part of a large package that includes the United States and large developing countries.  But how to elaborate new commitments remains unclear.  On the one hand, Kyoto is a red flag to many in the United States, so the Obama Administration would presumably prefer to elaborate new commitments under the Framework Convention.  But some developing countries that oppose any new commitments for themselves hide between the procedural argument that the Bali Action Plan did not give the AWG-LCA authority to elaborate a new legal instrument.

If anyone can pull a rabbit out of the habbit, it is the chair of the AWG-LCA, Michael Zammit Cutajar, who for many years was the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, now represents Malta, and knows more about the negotiating process than anyone else.  Though he was not authorized to prepare a negotiating text for this session (his first negotiating text will be prepared for the next session in June), he released two “focus documents” (here and here) that do a remarkable job in giving coherence to the discussions and proposals thus far and describe in broad outlines the possible elements of an agreement.

Ultimately, however, it is unlikely that a breakthrough will be possible in the highly ritualized UNFCCC negotiations.  Instead, progress will require a higher-level political deal among a smaller number of countries. This was the premise of the “major economies” process initiated by the Bush Administration, which complements the UNFCCC process and which the Obama Administration plans to continue.  Last Saturday, on the eve of the Bonn meeting, it announced that it was convening a major economies meeting (MEM) in April, with a high-level followup in July following the G-8 summit.  Whether this will prove successful is uncertain, but I think the Obama Administration deserves credit for its willingness to continue this initiative from the Bush era.

One Response

  1. Allow me to predict that we’re going to agree to little of anything useful, and then blame the failures on the Chinese.

    Which, really, isn’t much of a change from Bush.

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