Wanting the best, getting the usual

Guest post by Stephen Minas

United Nations negotiations in Bangkok to strike a comprehensive global deal to address climate change remain deadlocked at this hour, along familiar lines and because of familiar issues. 

The first session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA) had only to open on Tuesday evening for parties to divide sharply into two camps. 

The agenda for the meeting circulated by the chair of the working group, American diplomat Daniel Reifsnyder, was not acceptable to the G77 and China bloc of developing countries. The bloc proposed a counter-agenda, which was not acceptable to the United States and other developed countries. 

The chair’s agenda addresses what Reifsnyder describes as a “series of tasks” set for the negotiators by the Cancún Agreements and which need to be completed by this year’s conference of parties in Durban, South Africa. Items include, for example, the Adaptation Committee, the Registry and the Technology Mechanism, all of which are provided for in the Cancún Agreements.  

By contrast, The G77 and China agenda is more general, does not refer to these Cancún outcomes and addresses itself instead to “enhanced action on adaptation” and to “enhanced action on technology development and transfer”. 

The matter turns on differing interpretations of what is properly the subject and goal of this year’s negotiations. The United States said the G77 agenda “seems to suggest the last two years of discussions didn’t happen” and that the Cancún outcomes “which led to the standing ovations a mere three months ago were not part of the collective consciousness, didn’t matter, didn’t exist”. The US called for an agenda “that will lead us… to concrete deliverables, not only for some parties, but for all parties”. The European Union stressed that three years of negotiation under the Bali Action Plan had led to the Cancún Agreements, and “we cannot lose focus on what we agreed in Cancún”. These parties are focused on implementing the Cancún mandate. 

However, many developing countries stressed the incomplete nature of the Cancún Agreements with reference to the Bali Action Plan. Tuvalu argued that “we have to resolve the remaining issues that were not resolved in Cancún” or which were only “poorly addressed”, nominating loss and damage as an example. India described the G77 agenda as “comprehensive and inclusive”, adding that Cancún “did not address many critical issues of concern to parties”. China reminded the session that “the mandate has never been changed until we accomplish the mandate we agreed to in the Bali conference”. 

As the national statements (by turns hectoring, constructive and disappointed) continued long into the night, it was left to Russia’s negotiator to capture the mood with (he averred) an old Russian saying: “We wanted the best and we got the usual.” 

As of writing, informal consultations have been taking place in an effort to break the impasse. Asked to comment late on Wednesday afternoon, Danish delegation head Christian Pilgaard Zinglersen told this reporter: “What is underpinning what is being discussed is sometimes different from what is actually being discussed, [and] is a recognition that COP 16 in Cancún was an important step forward for climate change at the multilateral level while at the same time many countries here, be they developed or developing, also acknowledge that COP 16 left certain issues unresolved that also need addressing… Putting the emphasis on the Cancún… agenda or rather the emphasis on those unresolved issues is basically what we’re discussing.” 

Singapore, an exceptionally prosperous member of the G77 bloc, stressed on Tuesday night that “we don’t want to negotiate about what to negotiate”. As is so often the case at the UNFCCC, it’s a nice thought.