Bonn Chance


As UN climate talks resumed last week in Bonn, a leaked memo (pdf) shed some more light on what exactly went wrong in Copenhagen, and underlined the difficulties that negotiators still face.

The memo was written by Yvo de Boer, the outgoing executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and sent to staff of the UNFCCC secretariat. Written in the immediate aftermath of Copenhagen, de Boer’s disappointment is obvious: "At the beginning of the [conference]I called for a three-layered cake. What we ended-up with was a muffin of questionable parentage."

De Boer elaborates, claiming that prior to the summit there was "broad support for a package of decisions that would lay the foundation for the subsequent adoption of a new legal instrument under the Convention and something close to consensus on a second Kyoto [Protocol] period." So what went wrong?

"The Danish paper presented at an informal meeting a week before the [conference]destroyed two years of effort in one fell swoop. All our attempts to prevent this paper happening failed. The meeting at which it was presented was unannounced and the paper unbalanced." This was the draft text prepared by "circle of commitment" nations, including the Danish presidency and the United States. Among other things, the text broke the binary of developed and developing countries that had been enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol, introducing a new category of "most vulnerable countries".

The Danish text, leaked to the Guardian, provoked a furious reaction. Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese chief negotiator for the "G77 and China" group of developing countries, accused rich country leaders of "malice" and of attempting to "rob developing countries of their just, applicable and fair share of the atmospheric space". Negotiations continued on the official drafts rather than the Danish proposal but, as de Boer notes in his memo, the damage had been done: "Subsequent announcements of papers that never came but still some saw" resulted in "suspicion that something else was being cooked behind the scenes".

According to de Boer, the atmosphere of bad faith deepened in the second week when the Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, replaced climate minister Connie Hedegaard as chair of the conference. Heads of government arrived during the second week and it was considered desirable and appropriate to have a conference chair of equivalent status.

However, de Boer relates that after that change, focus shifted "away from the formal process" and towards "a view from within the PM’s office that the outcome … should [be]a declaration rather than a package of decisions. Although a second Danish paper never formally saw the light of day at the beginning of the second week, consolations [sic]were taking place." (This is perhaps a Freudian slip — "consolations" have certainly been taking place ever since.)

De Boer goes on: "24 hours were lost in trying to establish some kind of small group process." This was to be centred around the "circle of commitment" nations, which included Australia. But according to de Boer, the process went nowhere: "Seeing that further work in this group would undermine trust and transparency even more, the PM backed away from taking further initiative."

Ultimately, the Copenhagen Accord was hurriedly negotiated by a smaller group of countries including the United States and the major emerging economies: "Through a disorganised and ill-directed sherpa process a document emerged that became the Accord. Frantic behind the scenes diplomacy by major countries led to it’s [sic]ultimate adoption in the small circle."

The Accord then went before all parties for adoption by consensus. "A small group of countries, reflecting a much broader discontent with the process, made it clear that they would not accept a backroom deal brokered by the super powers … When it reached the plenary, attempts to get regional groups to discuss it failed. Complete chaos resulted. [The] EU and Umbrella [group, including Australia] called for the Accord to be hammered-through as a decision."

This was the point at which the talks could have collapsed. De Boer: "Here we reached the very edge of the abyss. Although [t]here was by then almost universal support to adopt the Accord, hammering it through against consensus would have created mass protest. Attempts to overrule [t]his would have destroyed the credibility of the process."

Salvation arrived, in de Boer’s analysis, in an unlikely form: "The Lumumba effect then kicked-in." This refers to G77 negotiator Lumumba Di-Aping, whose outrageous pronouncements guaranteed a packed press conference room at whichever hour he chose to make a statement. During the final plenary, Di-Aping had declared that Africa was being asked "to sign a suicide pact, an incineration pact … It’s a solution based on values that funnelled six million people in Europe into furnaces."

As de Boer relates it, these "outrageous statements … prompted many Parties to take the floor and say they were in fact willing to accept the Accord as an outcome". But as satisfying as it might be for de Boer to think that "[t]hanks to Lumumba, a backroom deal decried by many, turned into a letter of intent rejected by few", he may be overstating the importance of the reaction to Di-Aping’s ravings. More critical was the procedural measure of "noting" rather than "adopting" the Accord, following the intervention of British climate secretary Ed Miliband.

Nevertheless, de Boer’s memo is a pretty accurate description of problems which, ultimately, precluded a stronger outcome: suspicion, unwillingness to compromise and competing negotiating processes, formal and informal.

To these problems de Boer adds the complication of the unprecedented gathering of world leaders in the second week, for which de Boer invokes the Streaker’s Defence: it "seemed like a good idea, but it seriously backfired. Their early arrival as well as that of Ministers did not have the catalytic effect hoped-for. The process became paralysed. Rumour and intrigue took over." Unsurprisingly, the conclusion of the secretariat head is that future negotiations should be left to experts rather than politicians.

These are counsels of realism rather than despair. De Boer still maintains that the UN process is the best and most democratic forum for coordinating climate action, warning that attempts to develop a framework for agreement in smaller forums "could take a decade".

The talks resumed in Bonn last week amid revelations that the secretariat lacks funding for further talks prior to the end-of-year conference in Cancún. The Latin American holdouts against the Copenhagen Accord in December have resisted incorporation of the Accord’s components into the negotiating text. De Boer and Hedegaard — now the EU climate commissioner — have been accused of undue pessimism (of all things) by Mexico, which hosts the next conference of parties.

If the negotiations are sometimes Byzantine, the gravity of the situation is clear. As de Boer, soon to step down from his position, said last week: the Copenhagen talks "postponed an outcome for at least a year, but they can’t postpone the impacts of climate change".

This is the reality confronting negotiators in Bonn, as they work to surmount daunting obstacles to stronger international cooperation.

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