Draft Treaty Aims for Fossil-Free Future With Many Pages, Few Answers

Dozens of competing ideas crowd the 86-page text, with sequences of options, and clauses nesting within clauses, like so many Russian dolls.

Christiana Figueres (right), the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, at the Geneva climate talks. Credit: UNclimatechange, flickr

During a week of United Nations climate negotiations in Geneva, the draft of a new treaty got longer and more complex, rather than shorter and simpler as leaders had planned. That may nonetheless represent progress, according to participants and environmentalists.

The document under discussion at the talks, which ended Feb. 13, more than doubled in length to 86 pages, as delegates from more than 190 nations offered one option after another for consideration in the months ahead. Formal talks are scheduled to be held in Bonn in June, September and October before the final meeting of the UN climate apparatus in Paris in December, when the treaty is meant to be completed.

Before the meeting in Geneva, the Algerian and American co-chairs had outlined a scenario that called on delegates to produce a draft text that would be "more streamlined, concise, manageable and negotiable"–in a word, shorter.

But after talking it over with delegates, the co-chairs decided it would be "much, much wiser to not move forward immediately with streamlining," said Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Rather, the meeting focused on inviting all parties to add their own proposals to the text. Now it offers more options than ever.

"This listening mode has actually helped parties to understand each other better," Figueres said at a news conference. The expansion of the draft really is a form of progress, she said, because it means that all participants are assured their voices are being heard.

So the main achievement of the talks was not to clarify how the nations of the world would reconcile their longstanding differences, but rather to sharpen the distinctions among dozens of competing ideas, all now spelled out in long sequences of options, with clauses nesting within clauses like so many Russian matryoshka dolls.

Unsorted Issues

Among the many unsorted issues are the relative burdens to be carried by rich and poor nations, the amount of financial assistance to the poor, and whether developing countries should be compensated for losses and damages due to climate change caused by the industrialized world's pollution.

"These divisions nearly derailed the negotiations last December in Lima," said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a longtime observer of the UN talks. He called the draft treaty a first step, but not the most difficult one.

It is especially important that senior ministers and heads of state from the participating countries provide political leadership to the negotiating teams during a series of ministerial talks and summit meetings scheduled during the coming months, Meyer said.

Figueres was careful to note that the only changes in the text would be made during formal negotiating sessions held by the UNFCCC. This, she said, is part of the process of "building confidence" and "building trust" in the process, which has faltered many times in the past.

By publishing the draft now, the negotiators also satisfied a technicality, providing for more than the six months needed under UN rules for any such document to be completed by the end of this year.

For now, even the legal form that this treaty is to take–how to make it binding–has been left completely unspecified. So is the timing of emission reductions, and how frequently targets are to be updated in years ahead. The talks are premised on the idea that all nations in the future will have to cut emissions sharply. In the next few months, each nation is supposed to spell out how it intends to cut its own emissions. A few, including the U.S., China and members of the European Union, have already named their targets and are expected to be the first to file formal pledges, probably by the end of March.

'Not a Complete Loss'

Environmentalists attending the talks as observers said they were reasonably pleased by the outcome. Even Martin Kaiser of Greenpeace conceded that the Geneva drafting session was "not a complete loss." At the same time, he said that unless there was further concrete progress, the Paris treaty was in danger of becoming an "empty shell."

The draft contains several passages in which delegates attempt to clearly state the ultimate, ambitious goal of the treaty: to wean the world off fossil fuels as rapidly as possible and bring emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, essentially to zero by late this century. Otherwise, the UN's science advisory body has warned, there is little chance of preventing the catastrophic consequences of excessive global warming.

"The co-chairs used this session to get all ideas on the table, successfully building trust and priming the negotiations for success throughout this critical year," said Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute. "At this early stage, the palpable positive spirit coming out of Geneva is a much better measure of progress than the current length of the negotiating text."

Writing on the blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Jake Schmidt, the group's international program director, said that "in Geneva there was a lot of discussion about a 'durable' agreement, since many countries don't want to renegotiate a new legal agreement every couple of years. For many countries, this means having a concise legal agreement adopted in Paris that sets the contours of how countries are expected to address climate change for the next couple of decades."

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