Déjà vu in Bangkok


Guest post by Stephen Minas

The United Nations climate-change negotiations resumed on Sunday, and if the return of the UNFCCC to Bangkok is the most obvious reason for déjà vu, there are certainly others. In Cancún, another conference of parties has produced fragile progress, leaving officials the task of giving content to broad agreements. The thicket of acronyms, mechanisms and proposed mechanisms continues to spread. And the climate talks remain at the mercy of events – after the Global Financial Crisis which sapped the world’s attention, there is now the nuclear crisis in Japan and the global rethink of energy mixes it seems likely to prompt.

The nuclear disaster in Japan has cast a shadow over the early part of the Bangkok session. The European Union’s chief negotiator, Artur Runge-Metzger, acknowledged that the unfolding situation “will very clearly have repercussions on international climate negotiations”. However, Runge-Metzger urged participants to remember that “climate change is also going to lead to disasters, so we need to find a way forward”.

For her part, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres noted that Japan’s prime minister has stated that Japan will not have to change its existing climate targets.

And the nuclear situation is far from the only factor complicating the talks. At his press briefing, Runge-Metzer emphasised that the politics of climate “are looking much more difficult this year”, singling out the resurgent congressional Republicans and their hostility to the Obama Administration’s climate agenda.

It was therefore not surprising when US negotiator Jonathan Pershing decided to give the plenary the benefit of some basic civics, explaining that Congress is a coequal branch of government beyond the Administration’s control. (Evidence of just how independent the Congress is may be found here.)

Sunday and Monday were devoted to workshops on issues surrounding developed country emissions-reduction targets and developing country “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” (NAMAs), as well as the Technology Mechanism provided for in Cancún.

The question of offsetting remained controversial. Brazil, speaking for the G77 and China bloc of developing countries, warned that heavy reliance by developed countries on offsets could lead to a situation where developing countries bear most of the burden of mitigation activities: “This turns common but differentiated responsibilities on its head.” Mexico raised similar concerns.

Aside from debate over methodology and mechanisms, the workshops saw parties report on their national plans and reiterate familiar stances on the major unresolved issues. China, for example, repeatedly emphasized that NAMAs are “autonomous actions”, “voluntary in nature” and “distinct” from legally binding commitments.

The United States warned it would not engage in “political maneuvering” to alter its emissions-reduction target or its controversial baseline year.

The negotiations proper resume on Tuesday. UNFCCC head Figueres has challenged the parties to achieve two key goals in 2011: to make the “broader global climate regime” provided for in Cancún operational in 2012 and to “resolve the fundamental issues over the future of the Kyoto Protocol”.

For if the points of contention are as complex as ever, the bottom line of these negotiations is increasingly stark. Figueres told reporters on Monday that with the first Kyoto commitment period finishing at the end of 2012, “a gap in this effort looks increasingly impossible to avoid”. The UN climate talks are running out of road – as they were in the lead-up to Copenhagen. As Runge-Metzer said, it is up to the parties to give “people outside the room” confidence that they are not simply moving from negotiation to negotiation in peripatetic vain.

Stephen Minas is covering the Bangkok meetings for RTHK Radio 3 and 
The Diplomat. Twitter @StephenMinas