An uneven playing field

Countries are meeting this week in Germany to help decide a new framework to address climate change. But for the most vulnerable nations, write Joy Hyvarinen and Mike Shanahan, the talks are far from fair.

With less than nine months to meet the December 2009 deadline for a new global framework to tackle climate change, this week’s gathering in Bonn, Germany, of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be a critical negotiating session.

And while all right-thinking people agree that a new deal must be fair and equitable, the negotiations themselves are anything but. The talks risk focusing too much on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, without paying adequate attention to the urgent need for vulnerable nations to adapt to inevitable climate-change impacts. If the rich world does not address these disparities, the negotiations could result in a broken deal that adds to the burden of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

The current rules under the Kyoto Protocol commit a number of industrialised countries — but not the United States, which has not ratified the protocol — to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions by set amounts by 2012, when the targets expire. Countries urgently need to agree replacement rules by the end of December, or there will not be enough time to enact them by 2012. The last thing a climate-constrained world needs is a period without any nation having binding commitments to reduce their emissions.

High on the agenda at Bonn will be new targets for both the developed countries and what might be the first binding targets for rapidly developing large countries, such as China and Brazil. But a certain level of climate change is already “hard wired” into the system, meaning that some impacts will be inevitable even if all greenhouse-gas emissions were halted today. So we need to adapt.

In fact, impacts are already being felt in the form of harsher and less predictable weather, melting ice caps, coral bleaching and rising sea levels. While we will all be forced to adapt to the impacts of climate change, it is often those least responsible for them — the least developed nations and small island states — that are the most vulnerable. But the international negotiations, which revolve around the competing power agendas of nations, are unfair to those vulnerable states.

Size matters — the big players are the rich, powerful states — but is not the only factor that comes into play in the conference room. Technical and legal expertise, as well as knowing how to play the negotiating game, can have a decisive role in determining outcomes. This means that most developing countries are on the back foot from the outset. They lack the resources and personnel they need to stand toe-to-toe with the big players.

At the last big climate conference in Poznan, Poland, the US delegation numbered over 80 representatives, while the small Pacific island state Kiribati, where climate change is a survival issue today, had only three and Congo had just two.

This matters because the negotiations usually break up quickly into many small groups to thrash out difficult issues. Delegates from the least developed countries and small island states must rush between groups, often late at night, getting very little sleep compared with larger delegations. And so they lose out. Such nations also have minimal capacity or time for crucial preparation, but it can take months of analysis to understand complex issues and their implications.

Meanwhile, the delegations from wealthy industrialised nations meet in advance to prepare their negotiating positions — and fallback strategies — bolstered by technical, scientific and legal advisers. Although some of the small island states have managed to punch far above their weight by having some exceptionally good negotiators, most of the vulnerable countries cannot claim that advantage.

A climate-change conference may need climate policy specialists, highly qualified scientists, legal advisers and experts in several other fields, such as forestry and agriculture, but most countries simply do not have the skilled staff or the resources needed. This can result in developing countries missing opportunities to influence decisions that could help alleviate poverty, such as the design of incentives for rainforest nations to avoid deforestation and forest degradation, which account for about 17% of anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions.

Equally, the deal that governments will be negotiating must include a robust and effective long-term plan for helping vulnerable nations to adapt to climate change. But there is a risk that the focus will instead be on mitigation because emissions, and any attempts to impose binding targets to reduce them, are the major concerns of the larger, more powerful states.  

Despite their size and limited capacity to negotiate against much larger delegations, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) has succeeded in making its voice heard and has been a leader in promoting the moral dimensions of climate change. Likewise, the formation of a Least Developed Countries group that works together with a common negotiating stance has bolstered the weak starting point of these countries.

But the disparities in negotiating power remain. And while UN treaties have dedicated funds to support the participation of developing countries in the negotiations, these are voluntary and underfunded. The Least Developed Countries and the Alliance of Small Island States will need support from other nations to ensure that the deal strikes a fair balance between mitigation and adaptation concerns.

Some would say that the current situation is fair and that it is only to be expected that large rich nations have more say. Others would argue that to reach global solutions, which work for all states, international negotiations need to be based on a truly common agenda. Whatever the viewpoint, the playing field is not a level one.

Joy Hyvarinen is director of the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development

Mike Shanahan is press officer at the International Institute for Environment and Development

Homepage image from Piotr Fajfer / Oxfam International