UNFCCC = Useless Frequent Flyers?

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Summing up at the latest UN climate change talks in Bangkok on Friday, the endlessly patient Chair urged delegates to use their time before the next meeting in Bonn in June well. Otherwise they risked deserving the moniker in the title, coined by a Bangkok newspaper.

This diplomatically expressed frustration summed up the feelings of many in the room. It seemed that negotiations had no sooner started than they got bogged down in disagreements over process.

Many had come to Bangkok believing the concrete outcomes agreed at  the Cancun Summit in December 2010 provided a good starting point for this year’s work. There is a lot to get done. Including holding developed countries to their commitment to set up a new Green Climate Fund and provide $100 billion annually by 2020 to developing countries to support mitigation actions and adaption to the impacts of climate change.  Progress on climate finance is a key objective of CAFOD’s work, in the run-up to the next UN Summit in Durban in December 2011.

However,  developing countries want to make sure what was agreed at Cancun is precisely that – a starting point not an  end point.  They see Cancun as a foundation for building a house containing all the elements in the Bali Action Plan, where some developed countries want to focus solely on what was agreed in Cancun.  These 2 visions manifested themselves in an argument over the agenda. Happily, a compromise was reached in the form of an outline agenda that includes the key headlines of both the Bali Action Plan and the Cancun Agreements.

The talks began positively with 2 days of workshops: the first, on how to set up the mechanism to transfer low carbon technology to developing countries (one of the more positive outcomes of the agreements reached at Cancun in December 2010) had a good vibe and some concrete proposals.

The second was a workshop on mitigation – thus the discussion had much higher political stakes. Its aim was to clarify the legally binding pledges to reduce green house gases (GHG) put forward by Annex 1 (developed) countries, as well as voluntary actions on emissions put forward by non-Annex 1 (developing) countries. This was the first first opportunity for discussion of the targets since environmental ministers committed to them in Cancun and it was heartening to see that some developing countries gave clear information about their current and future mitigation plans.

Unfortunately, the woeful inadequacy of developed country pledges in light of the latest scientific evidence – and thus the need for them to seriously up their game (known in UNFCCC speak as “increasing their ambition”) was also evident. For more see our blog post “Apples, Oranges……….and Special Circumstances”.

The EU’s concern looked a bit rich to some, given their own target of a 20% cut above 1990 levels by 2020 – set in 2007 – is now looking decidedly unambitious. Well on track to hit the 2020 target simply by doing “business as usual”, according to the Commission’s own analysis, the EU should aim higher. Civil society groups are now calling for a target of at least a 30% emissions cut.

The lack of ambition over curbing emissions links to another fundamental political question that blocked discussions in Bangkok and threatens to overshadow the whole negotiations.

Under the UN Convention Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), developed countries have the responsibility to act first on cuts, as historically they have been the biggest emitters.  The Kyoto Protocol is the international agreement for ensuring these emissions cuts happen and currently around 40 developed countries are signed up.  It enshrines legally binding, economy-wide, absolute emissions reduction targets for developed countries based on 1990 levels.

As a rules-based framework, Kyoto enables comparable and transparent accounting for and monitoring of emissions cuts. However, the developed countries’ commitment to Kyoto expires at the end of 2012. It is not clear if they are all want it to continue. The USA was never and is unlikely to be a party to Kyoto and is pushing non legally-binding, voluntary targets.

Japan and Russia have already said they won’t sign up again. Even the EU questions the wisdom of going it alone and says it prefers a certain “level of comfort” (as the EU negotiator put  it in Bangkok) before going ahead – which means movement towards a single framework for cutting emissions encompassing all the major emitters .

The doubt over the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol – “2CP or not 2CP” as one wit put it – is thus upping the stakes and the overall tension levels in the climate negotiations  and this was very evident in Bangkok.

Developing countries were adamant during the discussions that Kyoto must stay and some countries like Tuvalu stated they want to see developed countries make that political commitment before they will start any technical discussions on improving or extending the Kyoto rules.

Kyoto definitely needs tightening up in terms of getting rid of existing loopholes that make accounting for emissions cuts difficult and undermine current pledges, but it is the blood and bones of any multilateral climate regime. Its survival is vital to ensure governments really do take the action we need to keep the planet safe and business has the certainty going forward to make the right, low carbon investments.

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