Cartagena Dialogue Provides Breath of Fresh Air

President Nasheed, seated in the center

“There is nothing wrong with being helped to go on living. And that is what this[climate change] issue is all about,” stated a senior official from the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia. I am at a ministerial gathering of 28 nations of the Cartagena Group/Dialogue for Progressive Action convening in the beautiful island of Bandos in the Republic of Maldives. The participants are from Antigua & Barbuda, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Ghana, Indonesia, Malawi, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Samoa, Spain, Tanzania, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Uruguay, UK and the European Commission. The Cartagena Group/Dialogue is an informal space, open to all countries that want ambitious and comprehensive outcomes in the UNFCCC, and that are committed, domestically to becoming or remaining low carbon. These are “forward looking” countries, willing to work positively and proactively together within and across regional and UNFCCC groups. The aim of the Group/Dialogue is to openly discuss the reasoning behind each other’s positions and to explore areas where convergence and enhanced joint action could emerge. That is precisely what I see happening.

A representative from an industrialized nation stated clearly, “don’t push us, [to be even more ambitious] or you are not going to like it.” While the words may seem a little jarring, that was not the intent. The purpose was to make clear that negotiators and country representatives sent to UNFCCC talks can only do so much as they are at the mercy of the political winds of the countries they represent and might suffer backlash from voters. It reaffirms that if large industrialized (and rapidly emerging) economies are to take strong action, it requires the majority of the citizens of those countries to have the will. And while we witnessed the lack of political will to pass through climate and energy legislation before the congressional mid-term elections in the United States this week, countries small and large gathered at Cartagena have provided a glimmer of hope, giving a breath of life to the stale atmosphere that lingers within the UNFCCC post Copenhagen. The truth is that the stiff negotiating environment of the UNFCCC rarely allows for a common space for understanding country positions and barriers to creating a comprehensive agreement. This is especially true given such forums are reduced to a debate over choice of words in what is essentially a legal contract. This is the second meeting of the Cartagena Group/Dialogue with regular meetings planned in the future. The arrival of this group is also important as Copenhagen revealed that even large groupings such as the G-77 are beginning to fracture due to the rise of BASIC. The latter’s demands conflict with many Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Least Developing Countries (LDCs) who are calling for a 350 ppm or 1.5 degree Celsius warming target. It remains unclear what future groupings could be like within the UNFCCC and there is no formal “Cartagena Group.” The current impasse in the UNFCCC requires new alliances and I suspect with time, a “G-X” will emerge to break the deadlock.

View from Hudaa island, Male Atoll, Maldives

Ethiopia, a nation that is often recalled for chilling images of the devastation from the droughts and famines of the mid-1980s, has announced its commitment at this event to become carbon neutral by 2025. The nation, which can be considered a cradle of humanity’s agricultural experimentation and development had only 5% of its original forest cover remaining in tact by the early 20th century has seen that percentage grow to approximately 30% today. Last year, it planted 7 billion saplings, second only to China. Joining it in this commitment was the small pacific island of Samoa which pledged to become carbon neutral by 2020. The Prime Minister of Antigua & Barbuda pledged that the tiny Caribbean island nation would slash its emissions 25% below 1990 levels by 2020. Costa Rica and the Maldives also reaffirmed their commitments to go carbon neutral by 2021 and 2020 respectively. And while no industrialized country has yet made such a commitment, Norway is developing its own carbon neutral plan for the year 2030.

The Cartagena Group/Dialogue will continue to discuss ways to deepen and enhance access to carbon markets for all nations, leverage the finance commitments from Copenhagen, and tackle MRV structuring (the measuring, reporting and verification component of mitigation commitments). All of this is in hopes that Cancun can pave the way for a breakthrough at the Earth Summit in South Africa in 2012. “While expectations for Cancun might not be high, we certainly cannot lower ambition.” The Cartagena Group gathered here in one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change impacts made that clear.