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Tuesday, August 19, 2014
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Plodding Toward Paris: UN Climate Negotiations Summer 2014

By Guest Author, Dena Adler, Yale Law & Yale F&ES '2016

As if somehow aware of the arrival of over ten thousand diplomats, researchers, and observers focused on climate change, the weather in Bonn, Germany turned a humid and hot 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the June 2014 international climate negotiations. While participants cleared security and swiped badges to enter the air-conditioned halls of the Hotel Maritime, the contrast stood out starkly between the “weirding” climate outside, and climate-controlled world of international policy inside.

For some climate policy wonks, winter weather is the hallmark of international negotiations, as the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meets at the beginning of December each year. However, these annual COP’s form only one piece of the negotiating puzzle, as evidenced by huge turnout for the recent—and distinctly summery—meeting in Bonn. Other crucial meetings occur throughout the year leading up to the December COP. These meetings may not capture major media attention like the COPs, but they play a critical role in developing timelines, focusing issue topics, and preparing negotiating text. Meetings must also flesh out agreements from previous COPs and build tangible action from ink and paper. The June 2014 Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany brought these process issues into play.

While much of the talk about climate negotiations focuses on the big policy questions, the nuances of diplomacy in the international process factor into many of the answers. As a new follower of the negotiations, what I found most striking was how observing the process actually provided context for understanding the policy issues at play. Much of the coverage of international negotiations consists of general news synopses for the mass public and technical policy analyses so laden with acronyms as to be unapproachable for the uninitiated. This post seeks to draw a middle path, drawing on my experience at the June 2014 negotiations to explain how some of the larger technical issues are currently moving through the negotiation process.  Admittedly the jargon and acronyms can prove a little difficult to digest, but I will introduce them with relevant explanation since they are crucial to understanding the process.

Ad-Hoc Working Group to Advance the Durban Platform (ADP)

During the second week of the Bonn June 2014 negotiations, I followed the daily meetings of the ADP (Ad-Hoc Working Group to Advance the Durban Platform.) This group works to fulfill a two-pronged responsibility. Under Workstream 1, the ADP aims to create a protocol, legal instrument, or other agreed outcome with legal force that will bind parties to achieve certain greenhouse gas emission reductions beginning in the year 2020.  Previous international agreement mandates that Parties complete a Workstream 1 agreement no later than 2015 so that they can adopt the agreement at the 2015 COP in Paris.  The Paris Agreement would then go into effect in 2020. 

However, in order for the Parties to maintain a chance of limiting global warming to 2°C, (the target agreed on by Parties at the Cancun COP in 2010), Parties must significantly scale up actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before 2020. Hence, Workstream 2 advances action to close the “ambition gap”—which describes the gap between the emissions reductions countries’ have pledged to make before 2020 and the more extensive reductions that they must make before 2020 if they hope to avoid more than 2°C of warming. Hopefully, Workstream 2 will help Parties stay on track cutting greenhouse gas emissions at home so that they can agree to more ambitious targets for the 2015 agreement.

Milestones for Milestones

Several facets of the negotiating process stuck out to me as a first-time observer. First, I had not fully appreciated that parties need to hammer out not only a substantive text, but the process and timing of creating that text as well as how it fits with complementary, preceding, and follow-up processes. Everything needs to be fleshed out and there is skin in the game of determining what process the parties will follow.

For example, staying on track to achieve a 2015 agreement requires not only hitting certain milestones, but also determining those milestones and when they must be reached (milestones for the milestones). During the most recent COP in Warsaw, the parties had agreed to an accelerated timeline to advance the 2015 agreement, which would require producing a draft negotiating text in time for the 2014 COP in Lima, Peru. The June 2014 negotiations presented a crucial opportunity to progress toward a Lima draft text by developing expectations and timetables including producing INDCs (initial nationally determined contributions), relaying the commitments Parties will undertake post-2020.

Ideally, Parties should propose their commitments early in 2015 to allow the requisite months to consider proposals, the fairness of their relative ambition levels, and how they collectively stack toward limiting warming to 2°C.  However, to prepare their INDCS for early 2015, Parties need to take immediate steps to agree on what information these commitments must contain. Arriving at agreement speedily can require trade-offs in the ambition, complexity, or specificity of commitments. For example, adaptation and climate finance commitments may require different models or metrics that take additional negotiating time to develop.

Negotiating to a Negotiating Text

Another active area of process negotiations revolves around whether the draft text will be formed as a large compilation of submissions from countries or whether the co-chairs will introduce a draft text based on parties’ submissions. On the one hand, a compiled document from Parties ensures that the initial document captures every country’s complete wish list and compromises from that baseline. However, such a compiled document would be hundreds of pages long and extremely difficult to narrow to an acceptable negotiating text on the current timeline. Alternatively, the co-chairs can produce a shorter document based on party submissions, which can more realistically be narrowed in the allotted timeframe, but as an abridged document its baseline will not include all desired items. Some observers considered the Parties pushing the huge, compiled document to be “obstructionist.” Others considered it a reasonable reaction from parties concerned about transparency in the wake of a Copenhagen 2009 COP that had splintered between a mainstream process and a closed-door side process.

The character of the negotiation meetings themselves also surprised me. I had expected a back and forth debate, but the first few meetings followed a pattern that consisted of the co-chairs presenting bullet points to frame discussion topics and then hours of parties taking turns to state their countries positions for the record. Obviously, negotiations require ample time to air all positions before Parties can reach common ground. Further, if co-chairs will later draft a text, parties have incentives to publicly voice their requests. However, until seeing the meetings in person, I had not appreciated how much of the scantily available face time it takes for countries to accomplish this preliminary objective before back and forth negotiations can begin. More detailed coverage of individual Parties stances is available here.

Plodding Along

As the second week of negotiations continued the discussions haltingly made progress despite these tensions. Nicaragua on behalf of the Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) submitted text, bringing to the forefront the tension between party submissions and co-chair developed text. While this caused a stir among Parties, the co-chairs agreed to fold in the positions of the LMDC text into their proposed text. Even as the session neared its close, many questions continued to swirl through the conversations: Would developing countries need to make commitments? What corresponding financial and technological commitments of support would developed countries need to make? What role would adaptation play in the upcoming agreement? If adaptation required different terms was it worth potentially delaying the agreement to include them? How would verification and compliance be undertaken? Would INDCs be locked in as part of the Paris Agreement itself or a corresponding decision that could be more easily updated and adapted if countries had to tweak their commitments?

By the end of the session, though hammering out specifics continued to be difficult, a number of larger players had stepped forward with outlines.  Still, some Parties voiced disappointment over the lack of a set timeline to complete concrete steps before the December 2014 meeting in Lima. However, as one clear step in the right direction, the co-chairs promised to release documents to further draft negotiating text based on the parties stances in the wake of the June meeting. On July 7th, they put forward a “non-paper” summarizing “Parties’ views and proposals on the elements for a draft negotiating text” including points of conflict.

Parties are now moving to prepare for a World Leader’s Climate Summit scheduled by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to occur in September. With President Obama and other world leaders expected to attend, this meeting can highlight positive progress and build further momentum or bring insufficient progress under close scrutiny. Before reaching Lima, parties have their work cut out for them to cross the many points of conflict to create draft negotiating text and expectations for INDCs. Further, the interested public has its work cut out when it comes to understanding the important components of this process and pressuring their leaders to achieve timely action.  Slowly but surely, everyone is plodding a path forward.  

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