Eleanor Roosevelt once said that the United Nations is “a bridge upon which we can meet and talk”. The bridge builders were sorely missing during the first week of the latest round of climate negotiations in Bonn. Instead of moving forward on substance and laying the foundations for progress in Durban, negotiators became embroiled in a series of agenda fights. This resulted in days of paralysis in the formal process.
What can we learn from the first week’s events, are there any positives to take going into week two, and what should negotiators do to turn this session around? First, we ought to deconstruct the agenda fight and avoid the allure of a blanket and simplistic analysis. The most obvious blockage is the spectacle of Parties loading the agenda with items that are often duplicative, frequently have very little buy-in and are clearly designed to draw down the clock. However, settling on this explanation as the sole reason for delay would be misleading and might overlook some room for optimism.
This week’s dispute was also prompted by serious discussions about how to structure an effective and viable work plan when the number of issues to negotiate is expanding and the time to conclude talks ahead of Durban is rapidly running out. This is a legitimate discussion about prioritization, building momentum around areas where a great deal of consensus already exists, and determining the best venue for constructive talks.
Secondly, many Parties are concerned that numerous issues remain unresolved from Cancun. They fear their concerns will be neglected if these talks focus too narrowly on implementation of Cancun at the expense of a long-term and ambitious vision, which for many of them includes the Kyoto Protocol. As the week progressed, a clear division emerged between those who blamed the palpable lack of trust on a failure to honor the letter of the Cancun Agreements and those who cited the failure to honor the spirit of the Agreements. Those in the former camp say all countries must deliver on the commitments they made at COP 16. Those in the latter camp say developed countries must first deliver on the incentives that led Parties to commit in the first place.
Throughout all of this there is a sense that many countries are playing a long game of chess – anticipating what the outcomes might be many steps in advance, fearing those outcomes, and consequently shutting down conversations before they have a chance to begin.
Throughout all of this there is a sense that many countries are playing a long game of chess – anticipating what the outcomes might be many steps in advance, fearing those outcomes, and consequently shutting down conversations before they have a chance to begin. The net result is that the wider group is prevented from speaking about issues where progress could be made and so once again substance becomes the hostage of technicalities and the session becomes dominated by process fights. The erosion of trust is clearly damaging for this particular gathering in Bonn but more broadly it is corrosive for the UNFCCC as a whole.
These problems are not intractable, at least not yet. Parties, even those who have serious and deep disagreements, have solid bilateral relationships beyond the negotiations. While the formal talks stalled, progress was made on many of these relationships. Clusters of Parties convened for informal conversations, providing welcome space for reasonable discussions, mutual learning, and outreach across the traditional negotiating blocks. Numerous workshops provided opportunities to exchange views on adaptation, mitigation, finance and MRV. The sight of key players openly seeking guidance on how to improve their work across these building blocks is cause for optimism. As we move into the second week the conversation and compromise so evident around the fringes needs to be brought back into the formal talks. Negotiators need to start building bridges once more.
To do this they will need to learn to be architects with a view of the big picture and a vision for where this process needs to go in the short, medium and long-term. This means having a realistic vision of where progress can be made between now and Durban, capitalizing on areas where a great deal of agreement already exists, and parking remaining issues for another day. The process cannot deliver ambition in the long-term if it buckles under the weight of unrealistic short-term expectations. In return those looking for a streamlined agenda need to be transparent about a long-term roadmap and committed to driving it forward. Many Parties need to be reassured that implementing the Cancun Agreements is a first step, and that the process is aiming for a binding agreement that commits the international community to a global temperature rise of less than 2°C. They also need reassurance that climate finance will flow to the scale, and in the form, that was promised in Cancun.
They will also need to learn to be engineers and concentrate on building the technical parts of this process that are vital to maintaining its structural integrity whichever vision emerges. Central to this is the debate on measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV). Whether on action, adaptation or finance, Parties clearly need information that is complete, consistent, and comparable. However, they will need support in building the necessary capacity to report and will need guidance on reporting methodologies. Crucially, they need help in understanding MRV as a tool for confidence-building, learning and planning rather than a burdensome device for policing and finger-pointing.
As the week came to a close one senior negotiator remarked “if we can learn we can cooperate”. He was referring to the value of MRV as a tool to learn from mistakes, diffuse good practice, build confidence, and generate additional resources as trust grows. His comment is equally apt to describe the need to draw lessons from the first week in Bonn.
While it is too late to save the first week, there is still time to learn lessons, foster cooperation, and move this session from paralysis to progress.