In The Field

Poznan: Deforestation, through the eyes of an activist

I found myself sitting on the floor with John O. Niles Monday evening in front of a bank of computers just outside the Elk Room. He was walking me through a two-day-old draft decision document on deforestation from a technical working group, which was busy debating the latest draft inside.

“For people like me who follow this process, this is like crack,” Niles joked, hardly taking a breath between a series of explanations that rolled off his tongue in a passionate, yet controlled, manner. “They had a huge argument about semicolons versus colons versus commas.” “That’s awesome,” I ventured, enthused by his enthusiasm. He concurred: “It’s really awesome.”

John O. Niles (also known as John-O) heads the Tropical Forest Group, one of those non-profit groups that keeps everybody on their toes by poring over every sentence that comes out of every meeting, with particular attention to things like punctuation. He pulled out another document under consideration within the Elk Room, an early draft proposed for a vote by all delegates at the conference. “It’s a 510 word sentence,” he said, this time disappointed. “There’s only one period, right there at the end.”


A week earlier, Niles had issued a press release saying the deforestation talks a were in danger of a meltdown, due in large part, he explained, to confusion about goals and process – as well as a little obstinacy on the part of Brazil and others. Similar reports were still circulating when I talked to him, but he seemed buoyed by the possibility that negotiators in the advisory group were at last on track to achieve an agreement on some of the technical details (say, how to measure and track carbon emissions from deforestation) and lay out a schedule for finishing things up next year. The language was close; he was picking bones with small – but perhaps critical – choices of wording.

To help me understand all of this, Niles drew a diagram to illustrate all of the parallel negotiations under way. First came the 1992 United Nations Conference on Climate Change; the Kyoto Protocol constituted the first major agreement under the convention. Kyoto signatories have one group on a successor treaty, but a second, parallel group was created to continue negotiations with the United States, which bowed out. A third track, dubbed the Ad Hoc Working Group, would create a separate protocol under the convention. But US opposition to various proposals on the table again led to a second ad hoc working group that included US negotiators.

Confused yet? “This is not one meeting – this is six meetings. They all move together,” Niles says. “Even seasoned diplomats are saying, like, ‘This is really incredibly complex.’”

Niles was particularly concerned about whether the advisory group would “inform” or “be informed by” the ad hoc working group that includes the United States. In the latter case, Niles says, rather than just receiving a report, high-level negotiators would need to take the matter into their own hands and make decisions next year, thereby working out the kinds of details that would be necessary for any kind of agreement at the next meeting in Copenhagen. “No one expected a substantive decision here, but they wanted to see a clear process forward,” he says.

Word had it that the final document came out later in the evening, but I haven’t seen it yet. Stay tuned.

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