UN climate talks agree draft text but main battles are yet to come

UN climate talks in Geneva last week agreed on a weighty draft text, meaning negotiations will move to much tougher phase in coming months

The latest round of UN climate talks in Geneva last week agreed a draft text, but the size of the document swelled almost threefold to around 90 pages, underlining the scale of the task ahead if countries are to agree a climate deal in Paris at the end of this year.

The talks, which were hosted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, sought to find common ground on a negotiating text that is hoped will evolve into a comprehensive agreement to slow growth in greenhouse gas emissions in both developed and developing countries.   

Few observers had expected a breakthrough in Geneva on the major issues so soon after a disappointing UN climate conference in Lima in December.

And last week’s meeting was much more about procedure – such as having a draft text in place –  than tackling the highly-divisive issues such as responsibility for big emissions cuts, financing for countries to deal with climate change and the legal status of any new agreement.

“At least last week we got consensus that this is the text that negotiators will have to work with, even if it has ballooned to almost 90 pages, the next session will have to whittle it down and that’s where the process gets much tougher,” said Liz Gallagher of consultancy E3G, an analyst of UN climate talks.  

At the next round talks in June, big emitters will finally have to grasp the nettle on the big issues that will be need to be in a future agreement and make compromises if the Paris meeting is to have a manageable text to work with.

That would also mean that many of the provisions inserted into the text last week (motivated mainly by self interest) will have to be agreed, refined or removed, presenting a test of the willingness of national delegations to negotiate.

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres remarked in tongue-in-cheek  fashion last week that the main news from Geneva was that there was no news, but she talked up the "transparent" nature of the Geneva talks and the importance of having a text to work with.

Observers said that trust in the process seems to have improved compared with 2009, when a small band of countries were accused of trying to stitch up a deal.

“It’s a much more open and positive atmosphere, but the obvious caveat that the tough negotiating hasn’t really started yet,” said one observer who requested anonymity.  

Well before talks in June, China, the EU, the US and a slew of other countries are all expected to announce their national plans to cut emissions, a move that the UN hopes will build up further confidence and transparency in the talks.

Most of the measures to be outlined in the national plans are already well-publicised, but are likely to fall well short of what is needed to keep the world below a 2C rise in global temperatures.

This means that even if there is agreement in Paris, countries will be under pressure to outline a longer term commitment to shift decisively away from fossil fuels and send a strong signal to producers and users of energy.