Saturday, July 24, 2010

BBC NEWS: - UN climate talks in the mire?


Richard Black | 17:22 UK time, Friday, 23 July 2010

It's not being touted as such, but the latest document from the United Nations climate convention (UNFCCC) is the clearest admission we've yet had that UN talks are in the mire.

Indonesian_floodingAdd it to the latest word from the US Senate, and "mire" hardly seems strong enough.

Let's take the global document first.

At the last round of UNFCCC negotiations in Bonn, the convention's secretariat was asked to prepare a "what if?" document.

In this case, the question is "what do we do if the Kyoto Protocol discussions don't agree a set of carbon cutting targets and other outstanding issues that can come into effect in 2012 when the current set of targets expires?"

The secretariat's role in this isn't political, but legal. Its mandate was to set out options that governments could elect to pursue; what to do is their choice.

The reason for the discussion of Plan B options is this: if there are no agreed industrialised country targets agreed by the time the current ones expire, how are governments supposed to set regulatory frameworks on carbon emissions, and what would induce companies to make low-carbon investments when the financial carrots and sticks might vanish in less than two years' time?

The document throws up a range of options.

One would see governments agreeing to continue the existing arrangements until 2014 rather than 2012. A second would see the adoption of some kind of "opt-out" rather than "opt-in" rule; another would see measures adopted by a majority of countries rather than by consensus, as of now.

Stepping back from the minutiae of what's being proposed to the wider issues thrown up here, there are two to pull out.

One is the sheer complexity under which the UN negotiations are currently labouring.

Try this for size:

"The acquisition and transfer of emission reduction units (ERUs), certified emission reductions (CERs), assigned amount units (AAUs) and removal units (RMUs)27 under Articles 6, 12 and 17 of the Protocol for the purpose of fulfilling commitments under Article 3, paragraph 1, of the Kyoto Protocol relating to the first commitment period until one hundred days after the date set by the CMP for the completion of the expert review process under Article 8 of the Kyoto Protocol, otherwise known as the true-up period..."

2012_beach_protestAs Star Trek's Mr Spock might comment: "It's English, Jim, but not as we know it."

Or maybe the UNFCCC has been infiltrated by the spirit of James Joyce bent on penning a sequel toFinnegans Wake.

The more complex things get, the more scope there is for governments to pick holes in any text and prolong negotiations, whether for genuine or for tactical reasons.

The other issue is what's signified by the document's mere existence: essentially, that the UN process is in trouble.

Yes, the rounds of talks go on and yes, a wide range of governments have pledged action, through theCopenhagen Accord, than ever before.

But the carbon curbs so far generated are a pale shadow of what is needed if you acceptthe 2007 conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - which virtually every government says it does - and the process doesn't look like generating anything stronger any time soon.

The year 2012 is an obvious deadline because of the expiry of the Kyoto targets.

If that's missed, then effectively there is no target date for a new set - extension to 2014 can easily become 2016, then 2020, and before you know it governments will still be talking about what to do by the time CO2 concentrations top the 450 parts per million figure that some profess to regard as an unbreachable upper limit.

The single biggest factor missing from the negotiations is, as it has been for a decade, the lack of a strong and equitable US commitment.

The emergence of such a thing looks even less likely following the admission that the Senate will not be able to pass domestic cap-and-trade legislation during this session.

Harry_ReidWith mid-term elections due in November, the mathematics of the Senate next term are likely to be worst for those backing legislation.

And already, less than two years after green fanfare surrounding Barack Obama's election, some observers are giving the bill its last rites.

If President Obama couldn't deliver climate legislation, who can? There are reasons to argue that a Republican president would be better placed than any Democrat - but only, of course, if he or she backs such legislation in the first place.

As I've mentioned before, the mood and tone within the UN process has shifted a vast distance since the run-up to December's Copenhagen summit.

You could say it's now much more in tune with the political realities than the ebullient trumpeting of seismic global optimism that characterised the arrival of delegates into the snowy Danish capital.

There are something like 700 international environmental agreements in operation across the world now; about most of them, we hear nothing. Meetings happen, progress is made or not, delegates come and go, and the years pass by.

Back in December, it would have seemed unthinkable to raise the possibility that the UNFCCC, charged with tackling what many held to be the planet's most pressing problem, could join their ranks.

Based on facts on the ground since, it doesn't seem half so incredible now.

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