UN climate talks are stuck in the mudUnited Kingdom
After the shambles of Copenhagen, a crunch political meeting in Cancún, Mexico, looks unlikely to deliver meaningful progress on the environment
Workers clean up mud left by floods on the banks of the Yangtze River in Chongqing, China. A string of such natural disasters seem to have added little impetus towards delivering action on climate change. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
Out in the real world Russia is burning, Pakistan and China are grappling with floods and mudslides, and millions of people are starving after long droughts in Niger and the Sahel. The Arctic sea ice is reportedly melting at near record pace, land and sea temperature data show conclusively that the world is warming and 16 countries have experienced record temperatures already this year.
So what more do countries need to persuade them to act on climate change?
A lot, it seems. In the parallel world of UN climate talks, where time is measured in endless debates about commas and full stops, negotiations have been going on for three years. But with only six days' formal talk now possible before a crunch political meeting in Cancún, Mexico, in November, the only progress being made is backwards.
This is what should happen: the chair of the talks invites countries to make proposals, diplomats narrow these down and then the politicians turn up, haggle and make choices. But last week in Bonn, the text prepared by the chair based on what came out of the ill-fated meeting in Copenhagen back in December, just got bigger and bigger.
In a series of moves that would have been farcical if they were not so serious, China, the US, Bolivia and others, stuffed in more and more paragraphs to the text.
Who started the tit-for-tat diplomacy does not matter; the fact is at least 40 pages of proposals will now have to be laboriously negotiated line by line at the next short preparatory meeting in China in October.
With so little time left for full negotiations before the politicians arrive, the talks now look to be in semi-crisis. The chances of a deal in Cancún were always slight, but now it's quite possible that the world won't get a legal agreement even next year in South Africa. You would almost think that some countries did not want an agreement, and you might be right.
But there is another line of thinking which says last week's steps backwards were progress. According to this thinking, what we are seeing is the welcome, overdue correction to last year's kamikaze global diplomacy which fatally destabilised the global talks and ended in the Copenhagen fiasco. This analysis would say the negotiations are back on track, the majority of world countries are involved as opposed to just a few, and, with a fair wind and a raised level of ambition by everyone, it could lead to a much more balanced agreement.
To understand this, you need to go back. If you remember, the US, aided and abetted by Britain and other rich countries, last year plotted to ditch the Kyoto treaty, which legally committed industrialised countries to emission cuts. In its place they sought to impose a new global agreement which would allow them to set their own targets and timetables, develop carbon markets, rework forestry rules, and spur green technology. Heads of state were to go to Copenhagen and, the moment the talks faltered, would be presented with a new text prepared by the Danish government. The big emitting countries would then strong-arm the smaller ones, horse-trading would pay off the antis, and the world would have an agreement.
It was a diplomatic disaster, a casebook study of how not to negotiate a global deal. Despite warnings, rich countries utterly failed to understand that the Kyoto protocol is like a bible to the poor – an act of faith, the only legal agreement they have which forces the rich to actually do anything. A draft of the text was leaked, the ambush spotted, and the best that the US could do was to get 130 countries to "associate themselves" with a weak, non-binding political accord which could be taken forward to talks in 2010.
That accord is now backfiring. The US desperately still wants it to be the base of the text which countries negotiate. But the confrontational "take it or leave it" American way of negotiating is not valid any more. In short, the developing countries have regrouped and are rethinking their positions.
From their perspective, what had been thrust on them in Copenhagen was insulting. They were being told to reduce their own emissions and change their whole development path, even as the industrialised countries were allowed to devise ever more sophisticated ways to do nothing.
The chief villain is now the US, the second biggest carbon polluter in the world (China became No 1 in 2007) and by far the largest historical emitter. The Obama honeymoon effect has worn off and what is being revealed, say the developing countries, is a US led by a President Bush mark 2, a country still not prepared to negotiate its lifestyle whatever the promises and protestations made by a liberal president.
Last week only confirmed their fears. The US was at its most bloody-minded – not prepared to compromise, still only prepared to cut its emissions by a paltry 4% on 1990 figures, and now unable to pass domestic legislation committing itself to any cuts at all. On top of that, it and other rich countries have still not put money on the table for climate aid.
The poor are used to be being bullied by the rich, but the scandal here, they say, is that the US and Europe do not want to do anything. New research from the respected Stockholm environment institute and academic institutions in the US and Europe shows that rich countries will barely have to adjust their economies at all, indeed could possibly increase their emissions.
The poorest countries are distraught. Last week the African group, the small island states and many others all got up to berate the rich for dragging their feet and tell the world of the exceptional droughts, floods and disasters they were experiencing. Instead of accepting the broad thrust of the accord, more than 100 of them have now demanded that any agreement limits future temperature rises not to below 2C – as the accord says – but to 1.5C or lower. Equally, many now say that the $100bn a year promise of climate aid ("little more than what bankers pay in bonuses") is just not enough. They have beefed up the text with what the US and Europe say are outrageous demands.
The trouble is that if the rich are not prepared to negotiate, nothing will happen. The greater the divide between countries, the more likely the whole process will break down in Mexico. Then we could have a repeat of Copenhagen, with Mexico instead of Denmark trying to broker an unacceptable last minute deal.
That is the nightmare scenario. More likely is that the level of ambition for Cancún will be reduced further with no more than a package of agreements negotiated and all the tough stuff put back until next year. Or 2013. Or 2014.
As one delegate for a developing country put it last week: "It's groundhog day all over again."
The news content in this section is responsibility of the information agencies and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Government of Mexico on this or other related topics.
El contenido de las noticias que se presentan en esta sección es responsabilidad directa de las agencias emisoras de noticias y no necesariamente reflejan la posición del Gobierno de México en este u otros temas relacionados.
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