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Climate Change: Bangkok preliminary meeting signals trouble ahead

Since the Copenhagen Climate summit we’ve known there is something very wrong with the U.N. political framework for climate change. Early morning compromise decisions by exhausted negotiators have become the rule at Climate Change meetings. It happened again at the preparatory talks in Bangkok last week.

Delegates have consumed three and a half days just to agree on an agenda containing the headings of the Cancun Agreements, and a couple of “additional matters”. Christiana Figueres, UNFCCC Executive Secretary, said that discussions have been about the scope of the work ahead as well as the expected outcome in Durban. To me this is as much of an agenda as one can get.

The head of the U.S. delegation, Jonathan Pershing, described the meeting as “an arduous process with promising results”. A description that applies to almost all climate meetings over the last decade.

What’s so wrong with this process? It takes too much energy to get very limited results. Unresolved issues are systematically transferred to the next meeting. That’s what the Bali action plan, the Copenhagen Agreement, and the Cancun Agreements have done.

Artur Runge-Metzer, chief negotiator for the European Union, argued that progress has been made from the Marrakesch Accords, at COP7, in 2001, when the rules for the Kyoto Protocol were agreed upon, up to Cancun, last year. It is “an incrementalist approach”, he said. The Climate Convention’s own structure leads to low-end compromises. Results are always far less promising than diplomats promise at the beginning. Incrementalism leads to muddling through.

Christiana Figueres argues that the UNFCCC is the only venue that includes all countries, under a “one country, one voice” regime–so it’s the one structured and authorized to make decisions on climate change. She praises this “top-down” model. Decisions “made at the international level can be taken to the domestic level”, where local policies would make them effective. But what Copenhagen has shown is that decisions of substance cannot be reached at the international level if domestic political conditions are not ripe for them.

Global conditions were very favorable in Copenhagen. There was an overwhelming consensus among all relevant actors of the global civil society. Global NGOs mobilized international support at an unprecedented scale. Final negotiations were directly conducted by the heads of governments of all major nations. And, yet, Copenhagen failed to meet expectations. Critical actors, particularly the U.S. and China, lacked the required internal political conditions to support a broad and bold agreement. So the solution was to muddle-through.

If a meaningful agreement depends on domestic political support, then it becomes a bottom-up approach. Domestic policies are consolidated at the international level, and this summing up of the parts becomes the possible global agreement.

The top-down approach will likely always be one of diminishing ambitions. A compromise between desire and possibility. The bottom-up approach may become one of raising ambitions. A progressive match between possibility and necessity. Once all countries have agreed to write their domestic policies into a global legal agreement, they can negotiate how to close the gap between policy and necessity. This negotiation would be about improving existing policy. The top-down approach tries to lead nations to translate into domestic policies what has been agreed internationally.

The parallel negotiation of the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, and of a new legal agreement under the umbrella of the Climate Convention – the so-called “two-track” system – is an unresolvable contradiction. The Copenhagen Accord, even though voluntary and informal, led the major emitters to register pledges that go far beyond anything the Kyoto Protocol would ever be able to achieve.

Both Figueres and Runge-Metzer claimed that no country has opposed a second period of commitment for the Kyoto Protocol. The first one is due to end in 2012. But many have said they won’t be a party to the Kyoto Protocol, among them the U.S., Japan, Canada, Russia, and possibly Australia. Developing countries argue the Protocol is the only legal mechanism binding developed countries to mitigation targets. The European Union says it will support the Protocol only under conditions. The foremost being that all major emitters, especially the developed ones, are committed to mitigation targets on a comparable degree, under some legal mechanism. But there are countries, like China, India and Brazil, saying they will not accept being party to an agreement that places them on the same legal footing as the developed countries.

The fact is that the Kyoto Protocol has become a major hindrance. If it remains the only legal mechanism, it won’t account for more than 20%-30% of global emissions. If a new agreement, like the Copenhagen/Cancun one, encompassing more than 80% of the emissions, is implemented through effective domestic policies, it would obviate the Kyoto Protocol. Maintaining the two-track system amounts to feed the deadlock. It is obvious that the only agreement that makes sense has to include all developed countries and major emerging economies. This inclusion is made more likely by internationalizing approved domestic policies, rather than by nationalizing globally agreed targets.

Everybody wants the legal certainty that no one will do the job alone. Actually this is a job that can only succeed if it is cooperative and engages every relevant economy. A legal deal will more likely be the final step of a process of integrating domestic policies into a coherent global framework.

The UN system has its virtues. It is a powerful educational instrument for global democratic politics. It puts together delegations of more than 190 very different nations to discuss the best ways to tackle the most complex challenge they’ve ever faced. But the system is not an efficient mechanism to reach difficult, meaningful decisions. And the clock is ticking. The diplomatic clock can be stopped. The climate change one cannot. Learning how to deal with the differences and how to face a common danger is a good in itself. But the world certainly needs a more expedited way to start implementing effective mitigation policies.