Climate talks in Bangkok go no further than setting up an agenda for 2011

After the failure to reach a climate change accord at the 2009 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP15 summit in Copenhagen, last year’s climate conference in Cancùn faced the need to re-establish the legitimacy of multilateral negotiations under the UNFCCC.  It wasn’t until the last few hours of the negotiations, that ‘a consensus without Bolivia’ was finally reached.

Following the damp outcome at Copenhagen, COP16 needed to establish a stronger agreement.  Unfortunately, the outcome of Cancùn was pre-determined, and proved to be modest. Countries pledged to meet non-legally binding emissions targets and according to analysts at Climate Action Tracker, even with these targets, the world would be heading towards a 3.2 degree Celsius increase in global temperature, with devastating environmental consequences.  Nevertheless, there were some positive outcomes, such as the creation of a new Green Fund, initially $30 billion and potentially rising to $100 billion by 2020, to help poor countries decarbonise their economies and adapt to climate change.  Moreover, the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) element of the deal holds promise for immediate impact on curbing carbon emissions.

Reactions towards the agreement were mixed, with many commentators regarding the Cancùn accord as only “a step in the right direction.” UK Ministers said: “We’ve worked hard to bring countries together and the expectations have been exceeded.  A global deal on climate change is now back on track.” Mexico President Felipe Calderòn, acknowledged, “It is less than what is needed, but it represents a significant step in the right direction.” On the other hand, Bolivia stood alone in rejecting the deal altogether, where Bolivian Ambassador Pablo Solon commented, “For us, this is not a step forward.  It is a step back, because what is being done here is postponing without limit the discussion on the Kyoto Protocol.” While the scope of the COP16 accord may not have been monumental, one can say that it helped restore some faith in multilateral UNFCCC processes with the hope of a stronger resolution at the COP17 in Durban, South Africa this year.

This week saw the organisation of the first of two climate conferences ahead of COP17, held in Bangkok, Thailand. Delegates from 175 countries sought to provide an update on progress of the Cancùn agreements and come up with an agenda for this year’s COP17 negotiations.  UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said that governments have two main tasks before COP17.  Firstly, there is the need to chart the future of the Kyoto Protocol allowing sufficient emissions reduction targets that will keep the world from going over a 2 degree Celsius temperature rise. Secondly, governments need to rapidly advance work to complete the institutions which were agreed in Cancùn and deliver the funding and technology to help developing countries deal with the reality of climate change.

Aside from further developing the agreements reached at Cancùn, last week’s talks in Bangkok aimed to provide an opportunity for countries to clarify their commitments and increase their ambition levels.  General commentators had hoped that Bangkok, and the subsequent conference in Bonn, Germany this June will pave the road for a new deal on emission reduction targets so that a legally-binding international commitment can be reached at the COP17 this year before the Kyoto deal expires at the end of 2012.  As World Wide Fund delegate leader Tasneem Essop said prior to the start of the talks, “The fragile compromise achieved in Cancùn helped put the UN negotiations back on track. Bangkok needs to build on this progress and boost the overall ambition levels of the talks if we are to avert the worst consequences of climate change.”

Whilst the agreement reached in Cancùn saved the fraught UN Climate Process from collapsing, differences in Bangkok re-emerged on how to move forward and tackle tougher issues such as advancing the fate of Kyoto.   Developing countries pressed for a discussion focusing on issues Cancùn didn’t fully address such as rich nations’ emissions targets and the financial aid that is to be given to poorer countries.  On the other hand, the US and other developed nations wanted to focus on the less contentious topics of the Cancùn agreement.

According to Climate Action Tracker, “Bangkok climate talks have not changed the gap between emission reduction pledges and what is needed to get the world on track for limiting global warming to 2 and 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels?” None of the developed countries made the effort to increase their reduction target, as was requested as part of the mandate for the workshop in Bangkok and of the Cancùn agreement.

Following a weeklong of workshops and negotiations, an agenda was nonetheless set.  After struggling to set negotiating priorities for 2011, the agenda outlined the issues that would be addressed in subsequent meetings leading up to the high level conference in Durban at the end of the year.  Governments agreed that the outcome of COP17 will have addressed both, the implementation of the Cancùn agreements and issues that were not resolved at COP16 but which form part of the Bali Action Plan that was agreed in 2007.

For the EU, climate talks are not advancing quickly enough. Connie Hedegaard, the EU Climate Commissioner, avowed that “too often, too much, time is spent on how to proceed.  What we need it to come down to the content side of this and that is urgent.”  Indeed, many nations were unhappy that most of the time was taken up trying to agree on an agenda. As Pablo Solon stated that “to spend five days discussing an agenda seems insane but what is behind the discussion of the agenda is what kind of outcome we will have in South Africa.” Furthermore, Senior US negotiator Jonathan Pershing told reporters that “it’s less rosy today than when we came in (at the start of the meeting)” and was not impressed by the fact some countries wanted to renegotiate the outcome reached at Cancùn.

It is thus fair to conclude that stalled disagreements over the agenda to guide negotiations through the year and the lack of progress over emissions targets bode ill for upcoming discussions in Bonn and Durban later this year.

Jessica Wettstein

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