The Illegitimacy of “Legitimacy”

The Illegitimacy of “Legitimacy”

[Professor Dan Bodansky is continuing his dispatches from the climate change talks.  This post is cross-posted at the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at Oxford.]

Copenhagen, December 17 – With the hours counting down to the end of the Copenhagen conference, real substantive negotiations have yet to begin. Instead, the focus has been almost exclusively on procedure. All week, the Danes have wanted to put forward their own compromise text, which would be negotiated in a smaller group – the approach typically used to hammer out an agreement. But some developing countries – most notably Sudan, Bolivia and Venezuela (apparently with the (at least) tacit support of China) — have rejected this approach, arguing that it lacks transparency and is hence illegitimate. Instead, they have insisted that the only “legitimate negotiating process” is to continue to negotiate on the basis of the heavily bracketed text that emerged over the last two years in the two ad-hoc working groups, in negotiating groups open to participation by all parties. In my view, this process virtually guarantees that the Copenhagen conference will not produce a meaningful agreement, since the texts emerging from the two ad hoc working groups are a mess, with multiple options within options, and negotiating them in an open-ended group, with hundreds of delegations, is a prescription for deadlock.

The refusal by some developing countries to allow the Danes to introduce a text or to negotiate in a smaller group is made in the name of ensuring a legitimate, transparent, democratic process. But another way of understanding it is as a cynical effort by certain countries to use procedural objections to prevent a substantive agreement. Yesterday, after the Danes said they would table new texts, developing countries objected and the formal meetings were suspended for most of the day while the Danes consulted with developing countries about how to proceed. Reportedly, the G-77 (the developing country negotiated group) refused to participate in a smaller group organized by the Danish presidency to have substantive negotiations.

Today, in a desperate effort to move from procedure to substance, the Danes accepted the procedural approach insisted upon by developing countries. They promised not to introduce any new texts, and convened two “contact groups” that are open-ended in participation, to consider the texts forwarded from the ad hoc working groups. Meanwhile, it appears increasingly likely that the conference outcome will be a short political declaration largely devoid of substance, and a procedural decision to continue the “process,” such as it is. The ultimate question, of course, is whether there is a deal to be had that bridges the gap between the US, which wants a common legal framework for developed and developing countries (including common provisions on monitoring, reporting and verification); the major developing country economies, which want to preserve the strong differentiation reflected in Kyoto; and the European Union, which would be willing to commit to another round of Kyoto-like targets, but only if the US is subject to a comparable regime and developing countries are willing to join a new legal agreement that subjects them to stronger commitments.

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