In The Field

Barcelona climate: A rough start, tinged with hope

barcelona.jpg I arrived at the United Nations climate conference today – late, on the second day, after a red-eye flight over the Atlantic and an all-too-brief nap at the hotel – and encountered drama much sooner than expected. I registered, oriented myself at the conference centre, gathered the requisite daily briefing documents and then found a bathroom to deploy a newly purchased toothbrush. It was there, after bumping into a colleague, that I learned the African Group had announced at the opening session on Monday that it would boycott the Kyoto Protocol talks until developed countries get serious about their climate commitments.

The Associated Press covered the story, and our coverage of the last climate meeting in Bangkok has additional background. But the important thing to understand here is that the talks are split into two main tracks. One is designed to extend the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and the other is under the original 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change. The main difference is that the United States is party to the latter but not the former. Developing countries have taken the stance that the Kyoto Protocol should retain its central role going forward – particularly as there is as yet no alternative – but Europe is seeking a new agreement under the convention.

After brushing my teeth, I met with a representative of the conservation group WWF, Keya Chatterjee, who proceeded to fill me in. What followed the African protest was a full day of informal talks intended to restart negotiations (Chatterjee called them “trust-building sessions”). We then proceeded to a plenary session where a new agreement was announced. Henceforth, negotiators under the Kyoto track would dedicate at least 60 percent of their time talking about emissions targets for industrialized nations; the rest of the time would be used to talk about offsets and land-use and forestry issues that affect the emissions calculations.

So. Here we are at the end of day two, with three days of formal negotiations before the big climate summit in Copenhagen this December, and we have an agreement on how to structure negotiations on one of two tracks. Not exactly promising, but it’s clear that the African countries – largely supported by the G77 representing most developing countries – have made their point. Now we’re back to core issues, such as who does what, how to ensure that it gets done, where the money comes from and how to bundle everything into a single package.

The thought of ironing out all of this by December is daunting, and conventional wisdom posits that it’s now virtually impossible. As a result many are starting to think about minimum requirements for success in Copenhagen, which is perhaps as it should be. But for perspective, it took WWF about a week to piece together a sample treaty (based on language already on the negotiating table) that would resolve the architecture issue by allowing the Kyoto Protocol to continue while including the United States and additional commitments by developing nations in a separate agreement.

The copy Chatterjee gave me is 37 pages; just fill in the numbers. Point being that there is plenty of room for compromise, Chatterjee says. From this perspective, what is missing is trust and political will, but she says one shouldn’t forget about a third factor: shame. Indeed, the idea of shame leads her to a remarkably optimistic conclusion: countries will manage to fill in the numbers in Copenhagen, simply because nobody wants to be responsible for blocking a deal. “There’s not a single country in the world that wants to take the blame for failure in Copenhagen,” she says.

There’s been no shortage of challenges to this view, but it’s worth noting that not everybody has given up on Copenhagen here in Barcelona.


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