International Climate Talks: A Three-Legged Marathon

Rebecca Chacko at climate change negotiations in Bonn, Germany

Rebecca Chacko at the climate change negotiations in Bonn, Germany. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Chacko)

It’s clear to anyone following the ongoing climate change discussions that the pursuit of a global climate agreement amounts to a marathon, not a sprint.

But this is not your ordinary marathon — it’s more like a three-legged race, except instead of two people joined at the knee, you’ve got 194 countries all tied together.

You can imagine, then, that this race has been neither easy nor straightforward. Going since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was first created back in 1992, there have been plenty of falls and bruises along the way.

But even though at times it is hard to tell if countries are going in the same direction, the race keeps going and we seem to be advancing, if slowly, towards our goal: an agreement to take collective, meaningful action to solve the climate change challenge.

In Durban last December, negotiators and others cheered as they crested a particularly steep hill, having only narrowly resisted the urge to give up and disband mid-course. The Durban Platform clarified the finish line: to conclude on a new global climate agreement by 2015 at the latest.

During two weeks of further negotiations this month in Bonn, Germany, those negotiators began to chart the course for how to get there. So, how did this most recent leg of the race go?

Negotiators struggled on a trail that was not at all clear — some wanted to go up the mountain, while others wanted to cut through the trees. Some argued that the finish line was in a different direction all together and suggested a flatter, easier course. Still others wanted to turn back to see if maybe they had missed a turn along the way.

The big issue on the table was how to move forward with the Durban Platform and expand climate actions to keep us on track to limit average global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius — the point at which scientists deem climate change will reach dangerous levels. Equity was a major topic of debate in Bonn — how would the new agreement address countries’ “common but differentiated responsibility”?

Discussions were intense and progress slow in other areas as well.

  • Charting the course for the Durban Platform consisted mostly of disagreements — even on issues like who would chair the discussion — due in part to loosening ties between developing nations of the G77 and China. However, in the end negotiators agreed on an agenda for both reaching the 2015 agreement and for raising the level of ambition before 2020.
  • Finance discussions also resulted in a lot of pulling in different directions, with developing countries (potential finance recipients) calling for focused discussion on finance while the U.S. and EU (potential finance providers) arguing that further discussions were not necessary. Meanwhile, the UNFCCC’s Green Climate Fund has yet to secure funding or to become a fully operational body.
  • On Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), the path forward was clearer, and progress was made in developing procedures for monitoring and for measuring, reporting and verification (MRV). Other technical issues will have to be discussed further in Doha in November. This is not all bad news — getting good guidance later is more important than rushing crummy guidance now. Progress still needs to be made to provide technical clarity on how REDD+ will be financed and to address the funding gap looming from 2013-2020 and the lack of long-term financing.
  • In the field of agriculture, negotiators walked in circles to find themselves back where they started. In the end, they did not conclude their work, and discussions will continue in Doha. Hopefully two weeks of practice have helped them to get in sync, but whether or not countries will muster up the political will to move forward remains to be seen.

So there it is — even if it seems at times that negotiators are marching in place, I don’t believe the time has been completely wasted. In Bonn, countries came together and shared views on the way forward. There was a lot of argument along the way, but sometimes it’s necessary to talk before we walk. That said, negotiators need to kick it into gear — at this pace, we will never make our goal.

While the UNFCCC will celebrate its 20th birthday at Rio+20 next month, we are still midcourse on this crazy three-legged marathon. It remains to be seen if we will get to the finish line on time — if at all. In the meantime, we cheer on those 194 countries, encouraging them to match their strides as much as possible and more than anything to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Rebecca Chacko is the senior director of climate policy in CI’s Center for Conservation and Government.

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