COP17 Goes High-Level and Ban-Ki Moon says agreement may be “beyond our reach – for now”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses the high-level opening plenary session.

Today 12 heads of state and 130 ministers arrived for the official start of the high-level segment of COP17. Pulling overtime shifts during the first week and through Monday night, the subsidiary bodies and first week negotiators have worked to get “clean” (i.e. largely non-bracketed text) options together for the big guns to ultimately decide on.

The opening plenary address for the high-level segment had speeches by South African President Jacob Zuma, Prince Albert II of Monaco, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and other heads of state, but it was UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who made the most unexpected comments during the session.

Speaking plainly, Mr. Ki-moon urged realism regarding expectation for a breakthrough in Durban: “It may be true, as many say: the ultimate goal of a comprehensive and binding climate change agreement may be beyond our reach – for now.”

He acknowledged that the reasons for this are well known: “grave economic troubles in many countries, abiding political differences, conflicting priorities and strategies for responding to climate change.” Further, he said he was seeking just four “incremental advances”:

  1. Implement what was agreed to in Cancún.
  2. Tangible progress on short- and long-term financing.
  3. Ensuring the future of the Kyoto Protocol.
  4. Not forsaking “collective vision” of a comprehensive, binding agreement.

Item 1 means running with voluntary commitments by about ¼ of member nations and, among other things, ensuring improved monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV). Item 2 means promptly delivering the $30 billion pledged for fast track financing as well as mobilizing $100 billion per annum by 2020 for the Green Climate Fund (GCF). Item 3 means ensuring that a framework for carbon pricing and markets is maintained. The final item seems a somewhat pitiful invocation to “Oops, try again next year!”

Meanwhile, a team of scientists writing in last week’s Nature said that greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels have risen by half since 1990—you know, circa when these long-running negotiations were beginning. Also, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published a report saying that the fossil fuel power plants and other infrastructure we build today will determine the future of the planet because we will be potentially “locking in” high emissions.

A reminder to negotiators: there are just three days left.