10 takeaways from the Bangkok climate talks

Pic: UNclimatechange/Flickr

Stalled. On the brink. Cliff edge.

These were some of the ways the recent round of UN talks in Bangkok were described. And yet, on reflection, was the latest round of negotiations really that dismal? Certainly there were flare ups. There always are. Finance was a big issue. It always is. There was a sense these negotiations lag behind real world progress. Again, no surprise. And yet there is that nagging question: If cutting emissions is a good idea and we know how to do it, why aren’t we doing it?

So what to make of the last week of talks? As ever, Carbon Brief has an excellent in-depth analysis — but here are my 10 takeaways.

1 — Toughest talks yet?

The 2015 Paris Agreement was a significant political moment, but it signalled the start of a new process rather than wrapping up loose ends. The rulebook is one of the main pieces that needs to be delivered to ensure Paris becomes operational.

But imagine writing rules with nearly 200 other people. Rules that will impact your economy and domestic politics for the next century. It’s incredibly tricky — and the temptation to add your own ideas almost impossible to resist — as this thread illustrates…

The result is we now have a draft set of rules running to over 300 pages, drowning in a quagmire of options. As one veteran negotiator commented, “the trouble with this process is there is no self-restraint”.

Here’s India’s former chief negotiator Ranjani Rashmi:

“People should refrain from elaborating more than what the Paris Agreement does in order to ensure that there is no logjam. Moreover, deeper political engagement is necessary to resolve longer-term issues; it will help not only effective implementation of the Paris Agreement but also enhancement of ambition.”

In these talks, being constructive often means deleting words and paragraphs, or suggesting compromises. We’re not at that stage yet, and language such as ‘equity’ (37 mentions) and ‘differentiation’ (29) highlighting the difference in responsibility between deveveloped and developing nations has expanded.

A positive result from Bangkok was that the officials chairing the talks were asked to start crafting a shorter — streamlined — set of options. But that will require considerable diplomatic skill.

2 — Whither Poland?

Warsaw has a vital role to play. One reason the rulebook text ballooned was the lack of guidance from the incoming presidency. Typically the presidency acts as a neutral referee for this process, advising countries what is — and is not — acceptable. Despite hosting more UN climate summits than any other country, the Poles are playing catch-up here, with a new team and in Michał Kurtyka a chief who is not well-versed in the dark arts of global climate meetings.

Here’s Mohamed Adow, Christian Aid’s International Climate Lead and a seasoned observer at the UNFCCC:

“Poland is the referee and needs to get its head in the climate game. Otherwise someone else will need to step up and limit the damage to the negotiations and the world’s poorest people. As COP 24 President it is Poland’s responsibility to ensure fair play and prevent big polluters from shifting the goal posts of the Paris Agreement.”

There’s no doubt Kurtyka is trying — and tweeting. Meetings in San Francisco this week, New York later this month and the final ‘Pre-Cop’ meeting will be the litmus test for how he is managing the process. But it’s not just about keeping the show on the road. COP24 is not just about delivering a rulebook: it needs to set the scene for genuine and radical climate ambition through to 2020, the year when the UN wants countries to announce new climate goals. That will require a vision — one we have not seen yet.

3 — US vacuum persists

The US negotiating squad at global climate talks is akin to a football team without a quarterback. In an era of a climate sceptic President, the State Department is not mandated to make any offensive moves, and no longer dominates the UN climate gridiron. It’s a problem for the talks, as the US historically was a proactive player here, offering solutions, building alliances, coercing other major economies into keeping the show on the road.

That said it can — and does — still have a fairly hefty defense, and it’s determined the protect the notion that the Paris Agreement nixed the split between developed and developing countries. This is putting it up against China, which is defending the right of poorer nations to be flexible in how they present climate targets, the reporting methods they use and the financial support they require. Their clashes are behind closed doors, but they send ripples through the talks.

4 — Markets offer some hope

Markets polarise opinions. Viewed by some as modern-day indulgences used by the rich to avoid tackling climate head-on, there’s little doubt they are now one of a package of tools to tackle global warming. A multi-billion dollar tool at that.

Talks on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement are meant to lay the foundations for a new UN carbon market, and negotiators I spoke to in Bangkok reckon they are going as well as can be expected. “New texts are a considerable improvement compared to the previous ones,” said one analyst.

Integrity and trust are a key here: how can the UN ensure a tonne of carbon saved in country A and paid for by country B is not counted by A and B as a saved tonne of CO2?

Can it ensure the billions of carbon credits already earned in the past decade under the Kyoto Protocol are not carried over beyond 2020 and bought by unscrupulous companies?

5 — Finance battles loom

Show me the money. Bangkok wasn’t exactly a wild West movie, but there were some stick-em-up moments with demands for cash. Not a surprise, given developing country climate pledges need $3.5 trillion of investment to deliver by 2030.

We’ll find out later in 2018 how far rich countries are to delivering the long-promised $100 billion a year by 2020 (the last tally in 2016 had them coming close). But for now there is widespread unease at the lack of clarity over finance, and with good reason, as former UN climate boss Yvo De Boer explained in Climate Home News.

“Countries make their actions explicitly conditional on support being provided. The Paris Agreement is the perfect place to look for many commitments of this kind. The second is that implementation of climate action falters because of the perception that rich nations have not met their obligations.”

The Paris Agreement demands far greater sums of money than $100 billion are leveraged. For instance, Article 2.1c of the PA stipulates all finance flows should be “consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.”

And yet the talks seem stuck on Article 9.5, which says developed countries should report every two years on “projected levels of public financial resources to be provided” as well as the need for richer governments to agree on a new finance target post 2025.

Here we have a stalemate. The US has turned off the finance taps. The EU, Canada, Japan and other richer countries are looking in their wallets. There are other sources of climate cash, but the optics of rich helping poor matter.

6 — Two key $$$ meetings in October

On that… keep an eye on these two meetings, which may determine the finance piece for 2018.

World Bank / IMF annual meeting in Bali, Oct 12–14
Green Climate Fund board meeting in Bahrain, Oct 23–25

And these…

7 — The EU has a (potentially) good story to tell on climate ambition

…and it should start telling it, and accelerate work on delivering the net zero mid century emissions target the Paris Agreement stipulates. Jean-Claude Juncker’s ‘State of the Union’ speech this week was light on climate… he talked more about stopping changing the clocks.

Brexit and German elections are dark clouds over EU ambition, but if Trump-threatened California can make a pledge to target zero emissions electricity by 2045, surely Brussels can? While they’re at it, Commission mandarins could also work out whether they want COP24 to be seen as a Polish or a European summit. The optics matter.

8 — Fiji deserves better

The Talanoa Dialogue was Fiji’s attempt to reinvigorate the tired UN climate process of a collective review. And it seemed to work. Envoys and NGOs enjoyed the storytelling side to the Dialogue, the emphasis on listening, learning and consensus. But there’s no point in getting an engineer to check your car if you then ignore his recommendations. That’s what looks like happening here.

The COP23 hosts Fiji did a great job getting countries and businesses into a room, filing submissions, explaining the challenges and opportunities for climate action. But so far they have not been left with a decent platform to present this in Katowice. If Poland is committed to a summit that sets the tone for 2020, it should give Fiji’s Talanoa Dialogue centre-stage.

9 — Impacts are overtaking the negotiations

I’ll let the IPCC’s upcoming 1.5C report do the talking here. Or indeed the FAO’s latest study on food and climate.

But we might want to reflect that time is running out. Certainly the farmers and fishermen protesting in Bangkok outside the talks below felt that way.

It’s increasingly likely the issue of how to help countries cope with the ‘loss and damage’ of climate impacts will be an issue at COP24. There’s a UN meeting from September 17–20 to work out next steps here. And with 56 mentions of L&D in the draft rulebook text, it’s not going away.

10 — Ban all-male press panels

Finally… it’s time the UN took a stand and banned all-male media panels. The sight of a negotiating group representing over half the global population fielding six men on a press panel was ridiculous. It would be fairly easy for the UN to say only mixed panels will be accepted from now on.

One last thought: for all the talk of these talks being toxic, that’s not the impression I took from watching envoys interact. Individuals whose countries are engaged in trade wars, proxy wars and cold wars greeted each other warmly in the corridors and sat in deep discussion. Hell… even the UK and EU envoys seem to get on.

These talks are difficult, they get heated and fierce words are exchanged between national representatives in meeting rooms. But there remains an odd humanity to the proceedings, albeit one ruled by weird acronyms and an obsession with process and punctuation.

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Tracking international climate diplomacy since 2010 | Trustee @LewYouTheatre | Also at @sportandclimate

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Ed King

Ed King

Tracking international climate diplomacy since 2010 | Trustee @LewYouTheatre | Also at @sportandclimate

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