Putting on our compromise hats

We all procrastinate, not just students, which means that a deadline can have powerful impact. This fact is true in the climate change negotiations. Much of the detailed text for the negotiations needed to be completed last week for the discussion in the plenary meetings that are happening this week.

Starting with meetings on Monday, discussions on REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and land Degradation) were opened. The chair introduced some potential draft text and negotiations took off from there. Moving slowly countries shared their objections and desired changes. Everything in these processes takes time and has to be seen as inclusive and consensus-driven (or very close to it). If you’ve ever tried to edit text in a big group, you will know how challenging this process is. Add in the fact that countries are looking for precision in the ambiguity of text to match their national positions. These are discussions where ‘a’ vs. ‘the’ matters. For those of us new to the negotiations, this arguing over details can be frustrating to say the least. I realized, however, that they are designing and developing the rules and organization of entire programs – details matter.

As the negotiations stretched on, countries were working into the night and in a constant state of negotiations and drafting. Two main issues were at stake: safeguards and reference levels. For those you who don’t speak REDD, let me explain. Safeguards work to ensure the free and fair participation of communities that live in the area; if their rights to use the forest will change, they need to agree to it and receive adequate compensation. Reference levels are the question of how countries calculate how much deforestation they have avoided. There is added challenge of how to deal with countries that have had very low rates of deforestation, because comparing current deforestation against past rates would, in effect, punish the “good” countries. Therefore, there are complicated calculations needed to establish baseline references.

It wasn’t until the last day of negotiations where the pace really picked up and negotiators really started to “put on their compromise hats”. After going to sleep at 1:00 AM, negotiations began again at 10:00 AM. Negotiators were met with a line of representatives from groups such as Greenpeace, telling them to ensure strong safeguards. In a twist that would be surprising to most people, this was what the US had been arguing for all along. The chair opened the meeting with a daunting task in front of him. Where previously it had taken an hour or more to discuss one paragraph, there were (officially) about 2 hours to negotiate the remaining 10 or so paragraphs. The pace quickened as the chair started to exert more influence, though always seeking agreement and consensus of all parties.

Like harried grad students, the negotiators received not one, not two, but three or more extensions on turning in a final draft text. Just 45 minutes before the last deadline, it appeared that the group would only have text on safeguards, but not reference levels. Resulting in a discussion of at least 10 minutes of whether they could only submit something on reference levels, with some countries saying both topics needed to move forward. This action would mean that the previous week’s work would essentially be thrown out or at least tabled to be rediscussed at the next meeting.

Facing this prospect, negotiations really and truly kicked into high gear. Some of the leading countries had negotiated part of the text outside of the informal informal meeting (informal informal informal?). These changes were quickly adopted by the group – suddenly all that was left was one paragraph. This one paragraph was a contentious list, but now there was an end in sight. The chair pushed countries to come to agreement and what had seemed impossible had come together 20 minutes after the final deadline.

Delegates clapped for what was now a clean text. No brackets (indicated disagreements) left anywhere in the document. The delegates had something to be proud of, but it was a bit like doing a marathon by walking half way, jogging, running and then sprinting the last 10 miles in hopes of getting a good time.