The Geneva climate talks: something for everyone

Jonathan Grant reviews the outcome of the latest round of climate talks which took place in Geneva last week.

Governments met in Geneva last week and cleared the final procedural hurdle ahead of the climate summit in Paris: they agreed a draft negotiating text.  But it was no negotiation – more of a light warm up for the exercise to shape an agreement over the course of the year.  Delegates worked their way through the Lima ‘Elements Text’ section by section and simply added new options.  

Under UN rules, the Secretariat must communicate any proposed amendment or protocol to the Convention to all governments six months before the session at which it is proposed for adoption.  Working back from the 30th November when COP21 kicks off, the deadline for the Secretariat is 30th May, which made the session in Geneva the last chance to agree a formal draft text.

Pity the translators

As each bloc added their wish list, the text more than doubled in length to 86 pages.  It was a mixed blessing that the co-chairs required governments to read aloud their additions rather than email them.  This probably forced a little restraint (though only on length) and helped identify which countries supported what options.  But it wasn’t great viewing.  In the interests of time, delegates were instructed not to justify or explain their proposals and there was little rationalisation of the options so duplications were proposed.

By Wednesday, they had achieved their objective of agreeing a draft negotiation text.  This covers all the critical areas of the negotiation this year such as principles, mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology and capacity building.  The Secretariat will translate the ‘Geneva Text’ into the five other UN languages and distribute it next month.   And so begins the usual ‘accordion process’ where the draft text for an agreement expands and contracts in the lead up to and at a major summit.

Markets and no markets

The working group discussed the potential for carbon markets in Geneva with several options proposed in the mitigation section.  Panama proposed that countries may transfer mitigation outcomes in achieving their objectives, similar to the emissions trading sections of the Kyoto Protocol.  Brazil suggested an ‘economic mechanism’ that combines emissions trading with an enhanced CDM.  Brazil wants to encourage countries to shift from intensity targets to absolute ones.  So, only countries that have absolute economy-wide targets would be eligible to use the economic mechanism – and gain access to lower cost emissions reductions in other countries through the CDM.

New Zealand proposed rules for accounting for land use change in the mechanisms; others noted the need to avoid double counting.  The EU suggested that all rules are agreed by 2016.  This would help avoid any disruption to the cooperative approaches that are already emerging between countries.  The broad recognition of the role of markets was encouraging for many in the business community.  However, there is still ideological opposition to markets from countries such as Bolivia and Venezuela.  And even some of the early government supporters of market-based approaches question in private whether it is strictly necessary to have markets text in the agreement.  They note that the Convention already permits cooperative approaches and allows the use of market-based policies to achieve national mitigation objectives. 

Talks about talks

Generally, the atmosphere was positive, particularly during the easy bit at the start of the week when countries were just adding text.  Delegates spent the latter half of the week discussing how to refine and negotiate the document over course of the year.  Some of this was substantive and some related to logistics.  The co-chairs said they wouldn’t split the negotiations of interconnected sections between separate contact groups.  In previous negotiations, different sub-groups have focused on different sections of an agreement.  This frustrates those with small delegations who can’t be in two places at once and doesn’t always yield much progress when many issues are interconnected.

Christiana Figueres, among others, now openly acknowledges that the Paris agreement will not put the world on a 2 degrees pathway.  So negotiators discussed the need for a ‘dynamic agreement’ which could be reviewed and revised over time without the need for a major re-negotiation or the imposition of hard divides between groups of countries.  There are obvious implications for shorter-term national political cycles and the evolution of emissions targets over the longer term.  Bridging the divide between developed and developing countries is another feature of a dynamic agreement.  Some suggest that as national circumstances change, national targets should become absolute, economy-wide and more ambitious.

To Bonn and on and on

Being littered with options, the Geneva Text has something for everyone.  Negotiations didn’t truly start at the session last week, but positions were defined a little sharper.  The co-chairs and Secretariat will probably edit the text slightly to eliminate the duplication and highlight the different options proposed.  They will also outline how they expect to run the next negotiating session in Bonn at the beginning of June.  It is likely work there will begin in earnest to rationalise and streamline the text. But it is unlikely that this will result in much convergence of views at that point in the negotiation.  The co-chairs also added two further weeks in Bonn to negotiators’ calendars (31st August – 4th September and 19th-23rd October).   Clearly, there is a long way to go to before the global agreement takes shape. At the moment, it appears that much of it will be nationally determined.