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Bonn voyage for Copenhagen bus

Richard Black | 09:00 UK time, Thursday, 8 April 2010

The battered old charabanc of the UN climate convention (UNFCCC) splutters back into life this week for a quick three-day outing to Bonn.

Sheep cross the parched ground of the Kouris reservoir, Cyprus, during the 2007 drought

But how it runs during the course of the year, and where its final destination lies, are issues that the drivers and passengers have yet to decide.

It appears that they're not all trying to get to the same place; also, that where some perceive a mud-splattered Rolls-Royce that can still be restored to its proper glories, others see only a broken down rustbucket that they'll pull on one last journey to the knackers yard.

OK, enough of the motoring analogies else I shall go off the road completely.

In plain English - ahem - what we have, in the form of the 11th session of the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol and the ninth session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention, is a short sharp meeting that will largely focus on where the two parallel tracks of climate negotiations that made little headway at December's UN climate summit in Copenhagen are going this year.

(If you're unsure why there are two parallel tracks, I tried to make sense of it in the third segment of this post.)

UN climate summit in CopenhagenThe main thing that's happened since the summit is that governments have been telling the UN climate convention secretariat what they intend to do about the Copenhagen Accord, the document that emerged on the conference's fraught final day.

Most nations have sent something to the UNFCCC - 123 when I counted on Wednesday afternoon, although more were being added, so the total might be a bit higher by the time you read this.

What's more, I've read through them all (don't ever say I don't go the extra mile for you.)

The vast majority endorse the accord - they "associate themselves" with it - but not all.

Ecuador, Nauru, Kuwait and the Cook Islands are among those that do not; meanwhile, countries that voiced the most opposition on that final Copenhagen morning - Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela - have not sent in anything, so it's fair to assume they don't want to associate either.

Neither has Saudi Arabia, the most influential of the oil-rich Gulf States.

The most eloquent and detailed critique comes from Nauru [pdf link]. I suggest you read the whole thing if you have time, but the essential points are that the accord doesn't do enough to prevent "dangerous" climate change, it's not an official UN agreement, and things coming out of it (for example a new fund for developing countries) cannot therefore have UN status.

It's very clear, therefore, that there is no consensus across nations on whether this accord is useful tool or a worse-than-useless distraction.

Among the majority that have endorsed it, there are some interesting lines to be pulled out.

A number of developing countries are explicit that it's just a political agreement, a helping hand on the road to a legally-binding international treaty. Some endorse the accord only on the condition that it leads to such an outcome this year.

China - widely regarded as the single most important driving force behind the accord - is the most explicit in laying out its view [pdf link] that industrialised nations still have to fulfil pledges made in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and in Bali 15 years later to take the lead by making deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and in providing financial aid to help developing countries do the same.

There are splits within some long-established groups.

Within the Gulf states, for example, Kuwait is against it whereas the UAE endorses it.

Small island states - among the first to be materially affected if projections of sea-level rise come to pass - are also divided, with - for example - the Cook Islands opposing and the Marshall Islands associating.

The US submission is also worth a look.

During the Copenhagen summit, President Obama said:

"I'm confident that America will fulfil the commitments that we have made: cutting our emissions in the range of 17% by 2020...in line with final legislation."

But the commitment submitted to the UNFCCC [pdf link] reads:

"In the range of 17%, in conformity with anticipated US energy and climate legislation, recognizing that the final target will be reported to the Secretariat in light of enacted legislation."

You can argue that there is no difference between the two. You can also argue that there is a crucial change of nuance - the introduction of the term "anticipated" legislation, with the final target explicitly dependant on how that legislation might finally look.

What, then, if legislation doesn't happen at all - a distinct possibility?

You can bet that China and India and the other major developing powers will be watching the space between "anticipated" and "commitment" very, very closely.

So what will come out of the three days of talks in Bonn?

No major news, in all probability. But perhaps, an indication of whether the process can make any meaningful progress this year.

Last week, the UK indicated a possible concession [pdf link] to developing countries, saying it...

"...would be prepared, as part of the EU, to commit to an appropriately designed second Commitment Period under the Kyoto Protocol, provided that countries which currently do not have commitments under the Protocol agree on a satisfactory legally-binding agreement which could operate in parallel".

(You'll recall that reluctance of the EU and other developed world blocs to agree further emissions reductions under the Kyoto Protocol was a major issue leading up to and during Copenhagen.)

If this indicates a more general willingness on the part of developed nations to live up to the letter of their historical commitments, it could be an important move, breaking down one of the barriers that kept rich and poor apart during the course of last year.

But it wasn't the only roadblock that prevented negotiations reaching an international climate treaty last year, and it isn't the only one that exists now.

We'll see how the beaten-up old bus looks after its three-day outing, and whether there's enough juice in its tanks to jump over, or drive round, a few of these other obstacles on the long journey to Cancun, Mexico, at the end of the year.

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