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OPINION: Small steps in Bangkok climate change talks


CDKN’s Head of Negotiations Support, Dan Hamza-Goodacre, reports from the latest meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), held in Bangkok from 30 August – 5 September.

Once again international climate change negotiators and stakeholders got together to work towards a global climate change agreement. This time the meeting was in Bangkok, amidst the culture, noise and vibrancy of one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. As a stark reminder of the impacts that the climate can have the meeting was held (coincidentally) one year on from the floods which caused wide-spread loss and damage in Bangkok and other parts of the country. Since then large scale flood protection schemes have been started, with some walls 7km long. Against this backdrop and the need for urgent action how did the talks fair?

Unlike the annual COPs which try to secure agreement on actual negotiating text, the ‘inter-sessionals’ (Bangkok and Bonn) are informal dialogues which pave the way for the COPs. They may be informal but there was still lots to be done. In Durban, Parties agreed to –  successfully conclude talks on long term cooperative action (LCA), a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, more ambitious emissions reduction targets, and a ‘legally binding’ deal (or words to that effect) agreed by 2015 to be effective from 2020.

Where is the ambition – and where will the emissions credits go?

So how much closer did they get? Talks on the 2015 deal were launched, differing positions aired, the lack of ambition recognised and the mood was generally constructive. The Kyoto Protocol discussion was polarised around concerns that there are so many spare emissions reductions (Assigned Amount Units -AAUs) from phase 1 of the protocol that not much would need to be done to meet weak targets in phase 2. Over 130 countries have consequently proposed that spare AAUs should not be allowed to be carried over, although a decision on this will have to wait until Doha as countries with AAUs have not agreed to the proposal.

In addition, there is still uncertainty regarding who will sign up to a new commitment period other than the EU. Australia looks increasingly likely to do so and may bring New Zealand along with it. Russia and Japan less so. In terms of closing the LCA, some parties (the Umbrella group of nations – a loose coalition of non-EU developed countries) think that most of the work is done and what is left can just be carried over to the new Durban Platform talks (ADP), but the LDCs and China do not agree. They want more progress on financing, technology and capacity building in the LCA before it is closed. However some progress was made within the LCA talks on finance for REDD+ and discussions on new mechanisms for international action.

All in all small steps were made towards the talks in Doha. After the somewhat tense talks in Bonn this is progress, however when compared to the scale of the task and the need for urgent action, there is still a long long way to go and Doha will need to pull out the stops. This will require strong leadership from the hosts, Qatar, who will need effectively to chair the talks to a successful conclusion. Negotiators and delegates are calling for high visibility from the Qataris in their preparation for the COP; and have also urged Qatar to take action as a nation, for example by announcing its own NAMAs (nationally appropriate mitigation actions). This would be particularly welcome as one of the most progressive actions on climate change in the middle east region to date. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking towards November 26.

Beyond the old divisions

The build up to the talks were clouded by comments from the US calling for ‘flexibility’ on the 2 degrees target. Cue sharp intake of breath from the majority of the international climate change community, especially as a number of countries, in particular small island states, have been calling for an even lower limit to temperature rise. Whilst limiting global warming to 2 degrees seems increasingly impossible, giving up on it now and in the build up to 2015, would send the wrong signal and likely water down already weak ambition, as well as worsening the likely fate of millions of vulnerable people around the world.

But flexibility is important in negotiations, especially when they are based on a consensual approach, which the UNFCCC talks are. Whilst the ultimate goal is to get all nations to sign up to legally binding emissions reductions targets, we are undoubtedly going to need a flexible system to accommodate such ambition. For example the UNFCCC has historically divided countries into Annex 1 (rich countries with a target) and Annex 2 (poor ones without one). This historical categorisation was blurred in Durban, opening up the possibility of change. This would be welcomed – how can we expect a system which puts countries in ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ categories to stay relevant when economies grow and shrink? Especially when the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait are in the ‘poor’ category. And how can such a divide recognise the progress that many of the poorest countries are already making to reduce their emissions. Not only do we need a dynamic way of categorising countries we need a system that gives options that can encompass different circumstances, perhaps with countries that are willing to go further being rewarded with climate finance or ‘special relations’ with other progressive countries. Climate change is not an isolated issue but one that needs to be mainstreamed into foreign policy so that diplomatic muscle outside the UNFCCC talks can help make progress within them.

A need for pragmatism

One of my favourite sayings is – ‘don’t let the best be the enemy of the good’. The UNFCCC talks are aiming high – 195 parties in a legally binding deal to tackle climate change to be agreed in 3 years time. We need idealism but we need pragmatism too, because  every country (bar perhaps the poorest and most lightly populated) needs to act if we are to limit  global temperature rise to 2 degrees. We know from our work on CDKN that progress is possible on both mitigation and adaptation. Such progress also shines through at the UNFCCC meetings once you talk to people about what communities, businesses, cities and countries are actually doing. And as always with the COPs and inter-sessionals there were stimulating events to go to – a UNEP FI round table on climate finance which threw up more ideas for ramping up the flow of money than I could possible digest – loan guarantee mechanisms for renewables, pooled funds for green venture capitalists, more feed-in-tariffs and underwriting of green investments. And a WRI dinner on equity and ambition which highlighted various potential approaches for sharing out the world’s carbon budget in order to overcome one of the fundamental stumbling blocks in the talks – how to agree on an overall carbon budget when it is not clear how it will be shared and how to agree how to share the carbon budget when it is not clear how much it is!

Small idealistic steps in the negotiations are complemented by pragmatic leaps of progress outside. And as evidence of climatic impacts continues to mount, whether floods in Thailand, fires in Europe or record Arctic ice melting, the pressure builds for an effective international agreement. We got closer to that in Bangkok. We need to get closer still in Doha.

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