It’s been seven months since I last ventured by train to Bonn, where the majority of the UN climate change negotiations take place. Last August, I bid farewell to the city, which had for most of last year had become like a second home for those of us climate negotiation nerds.
A lot has happened since I departed last summer. Further negotiations took place in Bangkok, Barcelona and of course Copenhagen.
Copenhagen was an iconic meeting, not because it delivered anything of substance to tackle climate change, but because it amplified the tensions and distrust that had lurked in the shadows for the past few years, climaxing in a fumbled and totally inadequate outcome – the Copenhagen Accord.
The Copenhagen Accord was a last-minute attempt to save the UN negotiations from collapsing in Copenhagen. Instead of negotiating a binding legal agreement, Heads of State from a small group of countries, including the USA, China, South Africa, India and Brazil drafted a political declaration. This was then presented to the 194 countries of the UN; it was rejected by a few countries, and subsequently not adopted as a formal document under the UN.
Returning to Bonn was slightly surreal, I felt older, but not necessarily wiser after Copenhagen. The aim of this UN meeting was to establish a work programme for the year ahead.
Discussions ranged from the number of meetings required to which of the various documents floating around would be the basis for the final negotiating text. Something one might consider relatively un-contentious compared to the entrenched divisions on the substance of how to tackle climate. No such luck.
The meeting scheduled to finish at 6 pm on the Sunday, finally concluded in the early hours of Monday morning after what was a tortuous negotiating session. To outsiders it might have appeared that countries were arguing over syntax, but for those on the inside, these negotiations went to the heart of what is at stake – responsibility.
The most contentious topic was how to deal with the Copenhagen Accord. Roughly 110 countries have associated with the Accord to date, but that still leaves around 80 (including India, China and most of Africa) who felt it was not adequate enough to take seriously as a basis for moving forward this year.
The substance and the process of agreeing the Accord were both fundamentally flawed. The Accord shifts responsibility away from developed countries who have emitted the most, allowing them to simply make offers of emissions reductions, rather than binding obligations in line with what the science is telling us. Even the UK admits the Accord didn’t meet their expectations from Copenhagen.
But it wasn’t all bad news. The new star of the ‘show’ was Margaret Mukahanana-Sangarwe, former Zimbabwean negotiator, and now the new co-chair of one of the negotiating tracks. Her pleas for parties to stop procrastinating and start negotiating definitely hit home to the negotiators in the final hours of the talks, and her firm but fair approach with a touch of humour which is so often absent from these meetings, was like a fresh breeze through the conference centre.
I have often noted how negotiators act like university students – they tend to put off their work until the night before it’s due, and Bonn was no exception to this rule. But in the final tense hours of the talks, I felt a renewed sense of optimism. Developing countries were ready to put aside their grievances and take a conciliatory approach towards their industrialised counterparts. There seemed to be a genuine desire by most parties (but not all) to make this process work.
So whilst the future of a global climate deal is anything but certain, there is a will to find a common way forward. Here’s what we believe what happened and where we need to go now.
I would have to disagree with the Congolese negotiator, who, on behalf of Africa said ‘if there is one thing we learn from history, it’s that we never learn from history’ – Copenhagen was such a monumental disappointment, and almost a model for how not to deliver a just and ambitious climate deal that we have no other choice but to learn the lessons from it. CAFOD will continue to track the negotiations throughout this year, so watch this space.
This article originally appeared on CAFOD blog – Just one world