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US driving climate process - but where?

Richard Black | 15:36 UK time, Monday, 12 April 2010

En route from the UN climate talks in Bonn: After the brutal medicine of Copenhagen, no-one was quite sure how much of the UN process would survive through the harsh winter intact and emerge into the warming weather of Bonn in springtime.

Horizontal_computer_useJudging by the three-day meeting here, at least one UN climate convention tradition is alive and well: a total incapacity for punctuality.

The agenda for the final session on Sunday afternoon looked simple enough: decide how many meetings to have through the year and roughly when; tell the chair what inputs she should use in drawing up her draft text; recall this agreement and recognise that document - and that's about it, really.

We should have known better. The session didn't begin within four hours of its scheduled 3pm start time, as wrangles continued behind the scenes.

The Russian delegate had brought cheers and laughter on the first day by suggesting that sufficient sleep is probably part of the essential recipe for effective negotiation; two days later, his enjoinder was history, forgotten, as debate stretched until midnight and beyond.

A sardonic observer might be given to imagining some Masonic-style ritual you have to go through when you become a UN climate negotiator, wherein you vow in blood that whenever the chair entreats you to stick to the point and be brief, you see how long you can go for and how many times you can repeat statements of your basic position.

Once the gallows humour of another hopeless overrun had faded in the early morning light, the reflection came that after all, there were sound reasons for the delays and the wrangling - and that they have something to tell us about the big questions relating to this process, namely whether there will be a treaty-style agreement this year, and if so, what it might look like.

Countries perceiving themselves vulnerable to climate effects are determined it should look nothing like the Copenhagen Accord, the political declaration drawn up by a small group of countries and presented to the rest on the final day of December's summit.

Trust was broken by the manner of its emergence, of that there can be no doubt. Many developing-country delegates said so; Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN climate convention said so.

Counting_moneyThat was why developing countries were so adamant here that the accord should not play a major role in shaping the treaty they want this year - and why they took so much time and so many words to prevent it being acknowledged as a major source of ideas for the chair.

But exactly which are "developing countries" now? Copenhagen made manifest what had actually been clear for many a year - that the world now is very different from the one we saw in 1992 when the climate convention came into being.

The single most obvious example is the emergence of China as the world's biggest emitter and its swift progress along the pathway to being the biggest economy.

But more generally, it's pretty obvious that if economies are growing at 10% or thereabouts per year, eventually their per-capita incomes and per-capita emissions are going to rise to Western levels. What constituted their self-interest has changed; and some of the internal discussions within the G77/China bloc (which now includes 130 countries with widely disparate wealth and climate-related concerns) were, apparently, rather fruity.

Still, at the end of the day (or the middle of the night, to be more accurate), this bloc is pressing for some kind of deal this year that will be as binding as possible - certainly, binding in some way on Western nations' emissions.

No-one, not even the US, is overtly opposed to that. But the US is adamant that there must be "symmetry" between itself and China - not an equivalence in the size of carbon constraints, but certainly in the "bindingness" and the monitoring and verification of those constraints.

Yvo de Boer, who's been at the nexus of this all for years, flagged this up as a potential deal-breaker, as did Artur Runge-Metzger, the European Commission's lead negotiator.

Some said before Copenhagen that if the US and China could sort out their issues, a global deal would be possible.

That was shown to be a little naive, because if you focus only on two countries only, some of the other 190 get pretty annoyed. Nevertheless it remains axiomatic that a US-China agreement is absolutely necessary, if not sufficient, for a global deal.

The next few months see a sequence of meetings at which the two governments will have a chance to sort things out between themselves, beginning with the Major Economies Forum in Washington next week, and running through the German-hosted ministerial gathering in Petersberg next month up to June's G20 summit.

Campaigner_in_chicken_suitIf they smooth their own bilateral path, there is still a mountain of obstacles to a new UN-style global treaty.

Some countries - notably the South American and Caribbean Bolivarian republics - are still incandescent about Copenhagen. And there remains the suspicion among experienced observers that the traditional blockers and slowers-down - Saudi Arabia is often named in this context - have changed neither their tactics nor their end goal of avoiding any constraints on fossil-fuel use.

The role of the US is, of course, crucial.

Barack Obama pledged new global leadership on climate change even before assuming office; and many people interpreted that as meaning the US would steam at full power towards a new global treaty.

Copenhagen suggested that might not be an accurate deduction: and during the Bonn meeting, a document fell into journalists' hands that seems to back an alternative view.

It is titled "Strategic Communications Objectives", and appears to outline what impression the US wants to create during the year, opening with:

"Reinforce the perception that the US is constructively engaged in UN negotiations in an effort to produce a global regime to combat climate change. This includes support for a symmetrical and legally binding treaty."

It continues:

"Create a clear understanding of the CA's [Copenhagen Accord's] standing and the importance of operationalizing ALL elements... Deepen support and understanding from the developing world that advanced developing countries must be part of any meaningful solution to climate change including taking responsibilities under a legally-binding treaty."

US delegation chief Jonathan Pershing declined to comment on whether the document is genuine - it certainly appears to be - but did confirm that the US was indeed pressing to "operationalise all elements" of the Copenhagen accord, even taking the position that countries that decline to endorse it will be unlikely to receive money raised under its auspices.

His argument is that endorsing the accord means committing to emissions curbs - and this entitles you to some cash.

But many of the pledges to restrain emissions rise submitted through the accord are so undeveloped as to mean virtually nothing concrete, certainly nothing quantified; Benin's, for example, talks simply of increasing public transport in the capital Cotonou, preserving forests and developing plantations, and getting energy from waste, with not a number or a date in sight.

In addition, Article 4.4 of the UN climate convention [84KB PDF], which the US signed and ratified, makes clear that developed nations with historically high emissions have a duty to compensate all poorer countries affected -

"The developed country Parties and other developed Parties included in Annex II shall also assist the developing country Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change in meeting costs of adaptation to those adverse effects"

- whether or not they have endorsed any particular political agreement.

What we can conclude from this is that the US sees itself as being back in the driver's seat, perhaps sharing it with China - but it may or not be driving in the direction of the binding treaty that most nations say they want.

Rather, the US appears to be leading in its own chosen direction - and if the Bolivarian republics or some of the more vocal (and vulnerable) small island states don't want to travel in that direction - well, that's tough.

It's a tangled web here. And the complexity and the spin have clearly survived the winter alive and well - just like the inability to begin a meeting on time.

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