Climate Policy Experts Not Optimistic About a Binding Agreement This Year — or Next

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Reporting from London

International policy experts discussing the future of climate change policy said they aren’t optimistic about achieving a comprehensive legally binding agreement at the COP16 meeting late this year in Mexico, and they’re not too optimistic about COP17 in South Africa in 2011 either.

The problem seems to be that trust between developed and developing countries was severed at Copenhagen in December during the last big meeting of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

“For Mexico to succeed, a few issues have to be addressed. The main one will be the building of trust,” Bruno Sekoli, chief negotiator for Lesotho and the COP15 chair for the least-developed countries group, said at a forum held Thursday by the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development (FIELD) at London’s Institute for Physics.

“I do feel that Mexico may be too soon for us to reach a legally binding [agreement], we need maybe a little bit more time,” he said. “Damage from 2009 will take sometime to heal.”

Negotiators will have to work on transparency and confidence building, among other issues, he said.

Camilla Toulmin, director of the non-profit International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), agreed.

“I’m not optimistic about Mexico and I’m not really optimistic about South Africa. I think what we’ve got to do is be much cleverer in terms of understanding the interests that don’t want to deal," Toulmin said. "I think we face a much tougher task than we thought in the months going forward to Copenhagen.”

UN climate chief Yvo de Boer, who is stepping down this year as executive secretary of the UNFCCC, echoed those sentiments on Friday at an international meeting of environment ministers in Bali. A binding agreement in 2011 is more likely than one this year, he said, telling the Associated Press:

"I think Copenhagen demonstrated that sometimes if you try and go too quickly, you actually achieve less progress."

The FIELD forum panelists stressed that it is important to “find other vehicles” and to do “concrete stuff on the ground” to move efforts to mitigate climate change forward. Their audience, including several representatives of NGOs, seemed to concur: When it came to the question-and-answer session, most questions were about localized action to drive action on climate change forward despite lacking a strong international agreement, so, as Toulmin put it, the whole process doesn’t collapse into WTO-like doldrums.

“This year, in a way, needs to be a year of implementation,” said FIELD Director Joy Hyvarinen.

She explained that if the finance isn’t flowing by mid-2010 then it would be seen as a further erosion of trust between developing and developing countries. Starting to transfer adaptation and mitigation technology is also key.

Toulmin suggested that green-economy or new-economics initiatives, low carbon developments, and a carbon price would help move the climate change agenda forward. Climate change, she said, is a consideration that could be added to other issues like energy security and sustainable development.

The audience suggestions at the FIELD forum went further: various forms of litigation in international courts and international bodies like the WTO in which complaints could be brought against developed countries, capping energy sector emissions, putting a price on biodiversity and carbon, cutting the U.S. out of the process entirely such that the European Union, progressive countries, and G77 could start mapping out the norms and principles to start tackling the problem.

Concrete steps in the right direction would help to restore trust, Hyvarinen and Sekoli said. And trust in negotiations is key, explained international conflict resolution practitioner Scilla Elworthy.

“The least protracted negotiations are those where the negotiators actually connect with one another at a human level," Elworthy said. "What had to be created before they could speak to each other fruitfully was a safe container, in other words an environment in which people with totally different viewpoints could meet and feel safe.

"It meant that people could drop their positions in favor of their interests and that’s the key difference in successful negotiations: When the negotiators stop talking about their positions which are stuck … and move to talking about what their interests are — what kind of world they want to see what kind of world they want to leave for their children and grandchildren — very often they find they’ve got shared interests.”

While the panel stressed the importance of reassessing the negotiating format of the UNFCCC, Elworthy explains that another way of thinking about climate change is also needed:

“The problem in climate change negotiations is that we’re still used to the zero-sum approach. … As long as we keep that approach, we’re not going to succeed. That belongs to the old days when nations could fight over territory and influence and empires could triumph and flourish and decline. We’re not in that world anymore.”

She says it’s important to include civil society because civil society has a role to play, not only in advocacy and education, but also in presenting practical proposals to governments. This is where localized scenarios and better understanding of interests will come into play.

There has been a realization, judging from the panel discussion, in the policy NGO community and governments, that there are certain things that need to be stressed at the international level, others at the national level, and yet others at lower levels that, taken together, will end in a climate agreement in the future. But it will be a long process.

Sekoli noted that the Copenhagen negotiations were exceptional for the high participation of country leaders, over 130, which was positive. But the panel concluded that smaller cadres of negotiators, like the one that negotiated the Copenhagen Accord at the end of COP15 — China, Brazil, South Africa, India, the United States, the Europeans, in a room with Ethiopia, representatives of the G77, and the Maldives — might be more productive. Elworthy agrees but stresses that they must be “well-mediated,” a place where COP15 fell short.

Elworthy explains that at COP15, “seasoned and able mediators were also not used and the UN and governments individually know they achieve much better results when they involve skilled mediators rather than classically trained negotiators and there’s such a big difference between negotiating and mediating. One aims to build bridges — that’s mediating — and negotiating aims to win.”

But Elworthy is optimistic that "never" won’t be the case.

“I think this is a cumulative process," she said. "If you look at previous impossible agreements like the comprehensive test ban treaty on nuclear weapons, that took time to negotiate, it was very tough negotiating and it took a lot of inside work. … That’s an example of how a comprehensive treaty can be reached even when the odds are pretty bad.”


See also:

For Developing Nation Advocates, Hope and Fear for a New UN Climate Chief

More than a Quarter of World’s Poorest States ‘Associate’ with Copenhagen Accord

Mexico City Gives 2010 Summit a Front Row Seat to the Climate Crisis