The ABC’s of Climate Negotiations

By Jason Negrón-Gonzales
Cochabamba, Bolivia
April 2010

angelica-navarroHere at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, I Just took in a panel on the ABC’s of Climate Negotiations featuring the negotiators present in Copenhagen representing Cuba and Bolivia, and an activist and policy expert from the Third World Network. They managed to lay things out clearly on what happened in Copenhagen, the US-led Copenhagen Accord, and their position on the negotiations now.

Some core points:

1. The key question (aside from decreasing emissions) in negotiations is how to divide up the atmospheric space left for emissions given that the US and other developed countries already used up most of the space that there was for greenhouse gas emissions. This then leads to the obvious follow-up question of whether or not the same countries that overused already should get the overwhelming share of what’s left. The obvious answer that most children would tell you is that no – that isn’t fair, or for that matter, just or equitable. Yet when a country like the US says it can’t or won’t cut emissions to the level it demands of others, that’s what happens.

2. Many countries in the Global South, and certainly the Bolivian government, believe that when developed countries like the US need to decrease their emissions that we should do it domestically, in US industries and the US economy, instead of creating carbon markets that let the US pollute away while paying someone else to decrease for them. This makes sense because history has shown that the projects that are supposed to “offset” emissions in the US or EU are often dubious, or might have happened anyway, or cause other problems for the people who live where they are happening (like with dams).

3. Regardless of the above points, the rich nations pushing the current arena of international negotiations are not seeking to get industrialized countries to decrease their own emissions by their fare share. Right now there are two competing options for a global framework to address climate change– a backroom deal the US is trying to move called the Copenhagen Accord, and the continuation of the international negotiations that have been happening according to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997. You read that right. The US-backed “Copenhagen Accord” has no relationship to the ongoing global negotiations process. As Angelica Navarro, one of the UN climate negotiators from Bolivia told the story, “It (the Copenhagen Accord) was given to us and we were told we had an hour to decide if we would support it enough. How are we supposed to make a decision about the future of the earth in an hour?”

4. The Kyoto Protocol, adopted through the UNFCCC as the global plan to set targets and mechanisms for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in 1997 has lots of well documented problems: a carbon market has allowed developed countries to avoid making real reductions to their emissions, a “clean development mechanism” which has spurred all kinds of destructive projects in the Global South, and the use of offsets which lead to continued pollution in communities of color in industrialized countries while paying projects elsewhere to cut their real or planned emissions. However, on the positive side Kyoto has: shared legal limits on emissions that are (at least prospectively) based on science; the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” meaning that those who have polluted the most should have a different burden than those who haven’t; exceptions for Global South countries with the intent of not restricting their development; and an enforcement mechanism if targets aren’t met.

5. The Copenhagen Accord, on the other hand, has: voluntary limits set by each country, no process to reconcile or pressure countries that offer less regardless of responsibility, no enforcement, continued carbon markets with offsets, etc., and an overall target set not by what science says in necessary, but only representing the total of what all the countries offer up. A study done by the EU estimated that if the Copenhagen Accord was approved with the existing commitments by countries it would optimistically only decrease emissions by 2%, probably locking us into a 3.9 degree Celsius temperature increase globally (this comes from a recent MIT study) – which would be a serious disaster.

The conclusion of the presenters was what you might expect; the countries represented are interested in following through with the official UN track of negotiations to get a better, more effective agreement. It remains to be seen how opposition to the Copenhagen Accord will fit in the package of demands that are coming from Southern social movements, but it certainly looks like it will figure strongly in the inside strategy of negotiators.

Ms. Navarro spoke directly to a US participant in the audience near the end of the panel. “We don’t believe that everything is lost. We have hope. But we have hope in you compañera. We have hope in the civil society. We have hope that together with the civil society of the South and the North, governments can make changes …We also believe that you all have part of the solution and we want to hear from you. What can we do so that the United States makes serious commitments? Not only in front of it’s own country, but in front of the world, those of us who are suffering because of this irrational irresponsible development, not only by the US, but all the developed countries.”

I haven’t touched on some of the other key issues like climate debt and REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) yet but they are coming soon. Pa’lante Siempre.