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Post-Bali paradox at UN meeting in Bangkok

ENB_crop.JPGIn Bangkok last week, the first UN climate meeting since Bali wrapped up after struggling til after midnight Friday – not to hammer out emissions targets or controversial new approaches to climate change mitigation, but just to agree on how long to wait before restarting discussions of such matters.

Planned from the start as a meeting to decide what would be decided at future meetings, it was never expected to yield any big breakthroughs. But the hard slog required even to set the work schedule for the next two years worried NGO observers.

“The talks managed to keep the momentum going … but it’s hard to leave Bangkok confident that the deadline can be met,” said Elliot Diringer, director of international strategies at the Pew Center on Climate Change. Marcelo Furtado of Greenpeace Brazil agreed, “If we took all these hours to agree on a workplan, one can only imagine what will happen when the real negotiations take place.”

Why so slow? For one thing, the G77 group of developing nations finally dug in their heels against Japan’s week-long steady pressure to plan greenhouse gas limits for particular global industrial sectors, in addition to Kyoto-style national targets. Sectoral approaches – heralded recently in Nature Reports Climate Change via this commentary by Glen Peters and Edgar Hertwich and this book review by Gwyn Prins – have the advantage of directly pushing the dirtiest industries to clean up, without leaving less carbon-stringent havens overseas for them to be pushed into. They also distribute mitigation responsibilities to the developing as well as the developed world, something which the US has previously insisted on but which developing countries have warned they cannot afford without more help from the rich North.

An attempt Thursday to summarize the first few days of talks noted emerging views that sectoral approaches could be used to support national targets, though they should not replace them. Made sense to me: sectoral limits could make deep emissions cuts less painful, while national emissions targets maintain a bottom line necessary for keeping the temperature down. But according to ENB, the summary raised a concerned buzz among delegates. That’s generally how things were going, though: the day before, ENB had reported that “Some delegates realized that they didn’t have a shared vision on a workshop on shared vision.”

By Friday, Japan met surprisingly fierce opposition to holding a workshop on sectoral approaches at the next climate conference, to be held in Bonn, Germany, in June. G77 countries, including China, had been pointing to promises from Bali that rich countries would set new national targets and provide mitigation and adaptation funds enabling the South to share the burden of industrial emissions cuts. After wrangling at length, they compromised on a sectoral workshop in August.

The difficulties raise a post-Bali paradox. With the the US back at the table and all eyes on a new deal to dwarf Kyoto, stakes are high. The greater the political will for change, the more there is for each party to gain or lose in the shakeup. We’ll see in Bonn whether the cautious rehashing of familiar arguments – typical of first negotiation rounds, as Diringer points out – gives way to actual steps forward.

Anna Barnett

Image: The closing session, just after midnight on Friday; photo courtesy of IISD/Earth Negotiations Bulletin.

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