Fiddling with the ‘firewall’ while Earth burns – making sense of COP19

Special blog by Kennedy Graham, New Zealand Green MP. – Elizabeth

The 19th conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change ended in Warsaw on Saturday.   Last-minute concessions produced a limp agreement.  A Copenhagen-style train-wreck has been avoided.

It is 21 years since the Framework Convention undertook to stabilise global emissions to save the planet from dangerous climate change.   Emissions have increased since then from 38 billion tonnes to 50 b.   Warsaw continues on that same path..

The main outlines of the COP 19 conference are:

  • An undertaking to prepare for ‘contributions’ for the post-’20 global agreement to be agreed by 2015; India and China refused to accept the word ‘commitment’;
  • A mechanism for loss-and-damage that would assist vulnerable countries to protect against extreme impacts;
  • A breakthrough on forestry with ‘results-based payments’ system to encourage developing countries halt deforestation and increase afforestation (REDD+).

Is this enough to call Warsaw a success?  If ‘success’ is defined as the short-term avoidance of failure, then perhaps.  If it is defined as achieving what is required for the long-term goal, the answer is no.

Consider the perspective.   We are, in late-2013, on the cusp of the global challenge that is climate change – the pivot between two stages.

  • The period 1992 to 2012 was Stage 1.  Stage 1 was the identification of the global challenge (UNFCCC – stabilisation of gases to prevent dangerous climate change) with preliminary action towards the global solution (Kyoto 1 – binding obligations on the North to cut while the South would report and curb).
  • Stage 2 was meant to be 2013-50. This would be a global agreement with legal commitments to quantitative targets applying to all.  Planning for Stage 2 commenced in ’07 (Bali) and was meant to last 2 years for signing in ’09 (Copenhagen). This failed, badly.
  • The second attempt at Stage 2 was 2010-11, culminating in the Durban Platform of Action (DPA). This is intended to see four years of negotiations (2013-15) for signing in ’15 (Paris).  Call this Stage 2 / Take 2.
  • With Warsaw under the belt and two years after DPA, we are half-way through Stage 2 /Take 2.

Are we making progress?  Not fast enough.  The sheer complexity of multilateral negotiations continues to thwart this kind of planning.  Take mitigation which is the highest priority. Doha was meant to make progress on the elements of a global agreement – a package of indicative criteria for achieving equity in the ‘burden-sharing’ of emission cuts.  This proved too much and was kicked down the road to Warsaw.  Essentially, Warsaw has kicked it down the road to Lima next year.

Why is it all so intractable? What are the main fault-lines?

It is about how materially rich we all aspire to be, and how we compete for the planet’s resources.  Some 195 sovereign national interests competing in traditional 19th century fashion.  The fault-lines are these:

  • Whether the rich North has done enough in cutting emissions to enable the developing South to increase emissions, as their economies grow, but at a slower rate, all within the goal of stabilising and then reducing global emissions. The South says the North has not done enough.
  • Whether, in a related context, the North has acknowledge responsibility for historical emissions (77% of emissions 1750-2000), since that is what has caused climate change to date. Such an acknowledgement has implications for ‘burden-sharing’ in the 21st century. The North refuses to make such an acknowledgement.   It points out that by 2020 the South will eclipse the North, not only in terms of future emissions but also in terms of accumulated ‘historical’ emissions (1750-2020).  So, for the negotiations over the post-’20 global legal agreement, all bets are off.  The principles of equity and CBDR (common but differentiated responsibilities), enshrined in the ’92 Framework Convention, are redrawn.  They form the political football of the negotiations at the cusp.
  • These tensions play out in more or less uniform fashion in each of the thematic contexts: mitigation, adaptation, financing, loss-and-damage, technology transfer.  Each work-stream, each subsidiary body, suffers them alike.  The distinction between North and South over the obligation to cut emissions is the so-called ‘firewall’, the fault-line of traditionally-perceived interests between the two major global camps.  It may be vanishing in recent years, but the extent to which it should influence current negotiations depends on your time-perspective: 1750 to 2100, 1750 to 1990, or 2020 to 2100.

This analysis, of course, is simplified and the dynamics on the floor and in the rooms are more complex and nuanced.  Neither the South nor the North speaks with one voice.  There is, in fact, a bewildering array of groups and overlapping sub-groups that intone a muted cacophony into the microphones. The G77/China, the like-minded group, BRIC, ALBA, ILAC, EU, UG, EIG, AOSIS – the acronyms reflect a mosaic of resentment and grievance, obduracy and antagonism, that hovers like an I-cloud over the common interest of climate stabilisation.

A pack of 195, or even half that as is often the case, cannot write up a common platform.  So it is usually left to the co-chairs of each body to try their hand at a draft.  This they do with varying degrees of skill before laying it before the delegates who proceed to strip it bare of flesh before wandering off home, reporting that they have punched above their weight.  Pretty much every final draft is a skeletal carcass, devoid of substance, left to lie on the parched veldt of the UN plenary floor.

This is what has happened, for example, to the mitigation negotiations produced by ADP work-streams 2 & 3. The difference between draft version 1 (2nd Monday, 10:00 hours) and draft 4 (2nd Friday, 05:45 hours) was between day and night – puns aside.  The Annex to version 1 identified a link between pre’20 and post-’20.  It identified what it called ‘common threads’. It spoke of enhanced action on mitigation; of the ‘character of commitments’, the nature and extent of differentiation, of arrangements for commitments ex ante. – 27 bullet-points in all.  Version 4 had whittled this down to 10 bullet-points with little substance left.

So the idea is that where delegates negotiate their differences to the detriment of the text, the ministers, being the political leaders carrying the mandate, come in and talk up the commonalities, bridge the disagreements and forge a common platform.  But that is not the reality.  Ministers come in, hold private bilaterals and regionals, and speak in public plenary at the high-level segment.  But the HLS is not causally connected to the diplomatic negotiations.   It is closer to a Parisian salon than a New York bargaining exchange.

And so the disconnect between aspiration and achievement continues over the fate of the planet.  Warsaw forms another moment in time.  I observed at the beginning that the dynamics were different here—more low-key with perhaps more space for a serious focus on the part of delegations.  I think this was indeed the case, but it proved to be inadequate to breaking the negotiating deadlock.