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A Window of Opportunity at Panama UNFCCC Climate Negotiations

The American author Tom Peters once wrote “if a window of opportunity appears, don’t pull down the shade”. Next week’s UNFCCC session in Panama is the penultimate stop in what has been a long and at times difficult year in the climate negotiations. The road to COP 17 in Durban has featured contentious agenda items, complex issue areas, and moments to test the resolve of the most patient negotiator. Yet despite these trying times glimmers of progress are evident, and as the year draws to a close we are beginning to see outlines of a deal that is both ambitious and imaginable. Every COP is important for making progress on climate change, with some being seen as “do or die” moments. But this one is better than important. This one is a real opportunity.

Over the coming weeks Parties have the chance to change the dynamics of the negotiations, create the conditions for fostering shared value (i.e., enhancing national competitiveness while simultaneously advancing collective action on climate change), and lay a stronger foundation for an ambitious and comprehensive climate regime by 2015. Parties have the chance to open a new window of opportunity.

The good news is there is already scope for progress across a range of issues.

  • On climate finance, negotiators can operationalize the Green Climate Fund and agree on a short-term commitment target for initial capitalization of the Fund. They can further operationalize and agree on a work plan for the Standing Committee,1 including a deadline for agreement on sources and measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of finance.

  • On greenhouse gas mitigation, negotiators can settle on guidelines for independent assessment and review (IAR) for Annex I Parties. For non-Annex I Parties, they can create a NAMA registry (recording “nationally appropriate mitigation actions”) and international consultations and analysis (ICA) guidelines.

  • On adaptation, negotiators can agree on guidelines for creation of National Adaptation Plans and can ensure financial support will be delivered to implement them. They can further agree on working methods and composition of the Adaptation Committee2, and its relationship to other existing institutions. Finally, they can operationalize the newly established program on loss and damage and agree on the next phase of the Nairobi Work Program.3

  • Negotiators can also take important steps to close the “emissions gap,” the gap between countries’ pledged GHG reductions and the reductions the science tells us is necessary to avoid dangerous climate change. They can do this by determining the scope, modalities, inputs, and other design elements of the Periodic Review.4

Clearly the biggest questions concern the big-ticket political issues. What will happen to the Kyoto Protocol? Will there be transitional arrangements designed to get us to a second commitment period? Will the Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA) track emerge from Durban with an agreed pathway for the future climate regime? Getting to a positive outcome on these issues will require a commitment to change the negotiating dynamics and embrace a vision of shared value across issue areas. It is going to require adoption of a broad package.

The acclaimed executive coach Marshall Goldsmith wrote a book on achieving success provocatively titled What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. As country delegations prepare for Panama and Durban they would do well to consider this advice. For some time the competitive approach to negotiations has dominated the UNFCCC. This approach treats the climate talks as a zero-sum game with Parties competing over one finite pie.

Negotiating a successful package deal will require a change of mentality. Parties will need to recognize that a win-win scenario is indeed possible. It is possible to have robust rules on assessment, review, and accounting while also mobilizing a substantial pool of climate finance. It is possible to maintain the institutions and rules of the Kyoto Protocol for a second commitment period while working toward a legally binding instrument under the LCA with a set timeline based on science and equity. What is needed is the willingness to trade in good faith while keeping an eye on the long-term goal.

In recent years the climate negotiations have sometimes given the impression of a series of ideas that had run out of steam. The ambiguous outcome in Copenhagen undoubtedly created the perception that the benchmark of success had shifted from solving the problem to saving the process. In addition, the ongoing financial crisis and economic slowdown has pulled scarce political capital away from the climate challenge and made the costs of action seem excessive. Even though progress has been made, sometimes the perception of failure is enough to undermine the chance of success.

The good news on the road to Durban is that issues can rise as well as fall. The greatest changes typically happen when a pressing problem is identified, confidence builds in the policy measures proposed to address the problem, and political will is generated to implement the policies. Just as a significant window of opportunity opened with the publication of the IPCC 4th Assessment Report in 2007, the upcoming 5th Assessment is likely to bring the climate challenge into sharp relief once more. Over the coming weeks negotiators have a chance to restore confidence in the UNFCCC. By choosing shared value over competition, they can equip the climate regime with the right package that has a chance of putting the world on a path to stay below an average global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius. More broadly, they can create the will and momentum to bring political convergence and greater ambition.


  1. The Standing Committee is charged with helping the COP to think through the full range of finance functions under the Convention. 

  2. The Adaptation Committee is tasked with providing technical support, facilitating exchanges of information and good practices and promoting synergy and coherence across international approaches to adaption. 

  3. The Nairobi Work Program is designed to improve understanding and assessment of impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change; and make informed decisions on practical adaptation actions and measures 

  4. The Periodic Review will assess the adequacy of the long-term climate goal and overall progress towards achieving it. 

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