As the Copenhagen climate talks approach, the negotiating text needs a lot of negotiation

With the Copenhagen climate talks in December now just 69 days away (and counting), the latest version of the negotiating text being thrashed out by officials in Bangkok gives a vivid sense of just how far there is to go.

In its 181 pages there were, on one official’s estimate, about 2,000 square brackets, representing passages that were disputed and still needed to be resolved. If you are so minded, you can have a go at counting them yourself.

The text is available at the website of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Among the passages in square brackets, for example, is:

Climate change is having significant deleterious effects on the composition, resilience and productivity of natural and managed ecosystems, on the operation of socio-economic systems and on human health and welfare, including crop production, fisheries and food security, water resources, as well as on housing and infrastructure.

In other words, the negotiators cannot agree how to describe the effects of climate change today.

It is hardly surprising then, that they also find it impossible to agree on what to do about it.

One paragraph, without brackets, shows an impressive level of consensus on the need to tackle climate change:

Early and urgent action by all countries on the basis of equity and according to their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities is necessary

Yet as ever, the devil is in the detail. Subsequent paragraphs show the divisions over how those cuts are to be achieved. This, for example, is a passage addressing the need for rich countries to lead the way in cutting emissions and shouldering the burden of reductions:
[In reflection of] [Because of] their historical responsibility for the accumulation of greenhouse
gas emissions in the atmosphere, [developed country Parties [and other Parties included in Annex I of the Convention] [must] [should] [show leadership] [in the global effort to build a low-carbon economy that ensures continued growth and sustainable development and strengthens capacity to adapt to the impacts of climate change] [shall take the lead in combating climate change] [and the adverse effects thereof] [in] [by] [in particular on taking corresponding measures in] [mitigation] [in taking on ambitious economy-wide quantified emission limitation and reduction] commitments [immediately implementing ambitious and legally binding emissions reductions] [through deep reductions in their emissions.] [or actions.]
So it goes on, with alternative paragraphs, and options for passages, and endless square brackets. There are also addenda documents, which give an insight into the agendas being pursued by different countries.
For example, there is a proposal from a group of oil exporting countries, led by Iran and including Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Nigeria and Venezuela, to include a passage reading:

Developed countries shall implement policies and measures to respond to climate change in such a way as to minimize adverse effects, including effects on international trade and social and economic impacts on other parties, especially developing country Parties

The small island states, who are most at risk from rising sea levels, have hit back with a call for a statement that:

The adverse impacts of climate change represent a grave threat to the inherent dignity, livelihood, and security of the most vulnerable nations, as well as the sovereignty, survival and existence of SIDS [small island developing states]. The global commitment to resolve these threats is a moral, ethical and legal obligation. There is an urgent need to consider and address these human dimensions of climate change

Bolivia and Paraguay, meanwhile, champion developing countries with their statement:

the extent to which developing country Parties will effectively implement their commitments under the Convention will depend on the effective implementation by developed country Parties of their commitments under the Convention related to financial resources and transfer of technology and will take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country Parties

Given all this disagreement and uncertainty – which extends to other documents published by the UNFCC, including a review of the possible contributions to emissions reductions from aviation and shipping – it is hardly surprising that politicians are becoming nervous and frustrated. Connie Hedegaard, Denmark’s climate minister and hence the host of the Copenhagen meeting, has been outspoken in her view that progress in the talks is “too slow”.

There is not much time left for talk. In the formal UNFCC negotiating programme, the Bangkok meetings run to October 9, then there is another session November 2-6, and then it is Copenhagen just over a month later. Hopes that there can be at least some form of agreement in December are based on the separate meetings of politicians, in groups such as the Major Economies Forum, which will meet in London on October 18-19, can make more progress.

If the politicians cannot break the deadlock, then there will be no agreement. And everyone will be going home from Copenhagen empty-handed.

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