1st Oct 2020

UN climate talks re-start amid widespread pessimism, mistrust

  • Denmark leading climate talks last year in Copenhagen (Photo:

Six months after the UN climate summit in Copenhagen ended in a shambles of mistrust and vitriol, with an accord widely agreed to be lacking in ambition negotiated in backrooms by a handful of nations, the conversation restarts on Monday in Bonn under an atmosphere that has hardly improved since the winter.

Going into the 12-day meeting, the half-way point between last year's summit and its follow-up in Cancun, Mexico, the outgoing chair of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Dutchman Yvo de Boer was frank about the likelihood of a major breakthrough not just in Boon, but in the central American city at the end of the year.

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"It's extremely unlikely that we will see a legally-binding agreement in Cancun," he told reporters last week.

Even those larger emerging states such as China and India who were architects of the Copenhagen Accord - which was never endorsed, only ‘noted, by the UN process - have since backed away from the three-page document.

They stress that the detailed texts approved by the UN delegations in December and worked on for two years must be the basis of talks.

The question of cash flows from rich to poor nations is also a major sticking point.

Mr de Boer called on wealthy countries to step up and deliver the cash they have promised to help poorer nations deal with the effects of climate change such as floods and droughts and make the shift to a low-carbon economy.

At Copenhagen, the EU, US and other developed powers promised to channel $10 billion a year in so-called fast-start financing from 2010-12, and $100 billion a year by 2020 for these purposes - although more than half of the latter sum will likely come via markets and not public funds.

The EU for its part seems to be on track to delivering its promised fast-start funding, according to a Spanish EU presidency document reported on by EUobserver last week, although details are lacking, a number of key states including Italy and Poland have not reported any cash commitments, and substantial portions of the sums will be offered in the form of loans instead of grants.

"The priority for the industrialised countries is to deploy the 30 billion (dollars) they pledged from now until 2012 in short-term finance to kickstart climate action in developing countries," Mr de Boer said.

"Now, of course, times are harsh, especially in Europe, but raising 10 billion a year for three years amongst all industrialised countries is not an impossible call."

Meanwhile, capitals around the world, both developed and developing are in something of a holding pattern while climate legislation in the US Senate remains stalled.

The Kerry-Lieberman bill sets a US target of cutting carbon emissions by 17 percent on 2005 levels, equivalent to three percent on 1990 levels - the baseline year used for comparisons by all other powers. The bill has yet to be presented in the chamber as the political capital that would be required to push through such a law this year dissipates.

The European Union was expected to give a boost to the talks with an endorsement of a unilateral jump from a 20 percent reduction pledge to one of 30 percent, but Brussels fudged the issue, with a European Commission report describing how it would not cost the bloc that much more to make the shift effectively sat on after France and Germany announced on the eve of its publication that the move was premature.

Scientists monitoring the emissions reduction commitments made so far say that the lack of ambition will result in an average global temperature increase of three to four degrees celsius, far above their recommended 1.5 to two degrees change that would avoid catastrophic climate change.

Beyond climate cash and emissions targets, the key battle in Copenhagen is set to return in Bonn - over the future of the Kyoto Protocol, the sole international document that contains binding emissions reductions on developed countries.

Rich countries for the most part wanted to kill of the document as its first commitment period expires in 2012, to be replaced by a new treaty that would involve commitments from at least some of the larger emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil.

Developing countries for their part have said that they require the ‘carbon space' to continue to industrialise and that it is unfair for the global north to kick out the ladder they used to establish their advanced economies.

At preliminary discussions in April, the Africa group of nations, headed by the Democratic Republic of Congo, warned they did not want to see a repeat of Copenhagen: "We saw the sidelining of the multilateral process, the emergence of a secret text put together by a selected few that later became known as the Copenhagen Accord and the blatant attempt to discard the Kyoto Protocol. These mistakes fundamentally broke the trust that is very necessary for any partnership that aspires to be successful and enduring to work."

In a fresh embarrassment for the developed states, on Monday (31 May), it was revealed in the Danish press and the UK's Guardian daily that Yvo de Boer himself privately blamed the then Danish presidency of the UN process and other western powers of riding roughshod over the poorer nations.

In a leaked letter written by the climate supremo to his colleagues in December, the attempt by Denmark to present a draft text to a small number of countries at the beginning of the Copenhagen meeting was the nail in the coffin for the summit, taking the side of wealthy countries.

He wrote that the UN itself tried to stop the backroom development of the ‘Danish text', attempting to keep the main public UN process the locus of negotiations.

"[The Danish text] destroyed two years of effort in one fell swoop," Mr De Boer wrote. "All our attempts to prevent the paper happening failed. The meeting at which it was presented was unannounced and the paper unbalanced."


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