Trends by Martin Khor
Monday 14 May 2012
Climate talks and dilemmas resume
inaugural meeting of the Durban Platform takes place in Bonn this
week, taking the battle in climate change of concepts and of who needs
to do what actions to a new stage.
global climate change negotiations resume in Bonn today, for the first
time since the turbulent annual conference of the parties in Durban
The Bonn talks will be closely watched by the world public, since
the climate situation seems to be deteriorating.
There have been heavy rainfalls causing serious floods for example
in Pakistan and Thailand, frequent damaging storms in the Philippines
and Central and South America, and drought in parts of Africa.
Scientists have linked the higher incidence and intensity of extreme
weather events to climate change.
Actions to curb global warming have however been lagging behind, despite
the much-publicised frequent negotiations under the UN Climate Change
As global emissions of carbon dioxide greenhouse gases keep rising,
there is a good chance that the average global temperature will rise
more than 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial revolution level,
a threshold that scientists warn will cause serious effects such as
sea level rise, flooding, storms, droughts and reduced agricultural
yields in many parts of the world. The present average is about 0.8
degree above the pre-industrial level.
Unfortunately, the lack of adequate pledges to act (especially by
the major industrialised countries) is putting the world on track
for the global average temperature to rise by 3 to 4 or even 5 degrees
within a century, a recipe for catastrophe that threatens the survival
of civilisation or even the human species itself.
This is the background to the two-week meeting in Bonn. Although
the science and the events on the ground have been rapidly developing,
the politics of reaching agreement on actions has been stuck in a
familiar groove: what should developed and developing countries do
to curb and cope with climate change?
Can they cooperate to bring about new economic, technological and
social patterns so that actions to control climate change do not affect
economic and social development?
The Bonn meeting will be quite a milestone, as it will include the
inaugural plenary of the new working group on the Durban Platform
for Enhanced Action.
is tasked with coming up with an outcome (either a protocol, another
legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force) by 2015, in
order to implement agreed climate related actions from 2020.
This new outcome will be under the UN Climate Change Convention, and
be applicable to all Parties, according to the decision adopted in
Partly because the Durban Platform decision was taken at literarily
the last hour, with many delegates not having the opportunity to fully
digest its meaning, there are differing interpretations of what its
key paragraphs mean.
Climate negotiators from the United States, in post-Durban speeches,
have stressed the significance of the absence in the text of the terms
‘equity’ and ‘common but differentiated responsibility’.
These terms are prominent in the Convention and have been much used
in climate talks over the years by developing countries to argue that
rich and poor countries have different obligations to curb global
warming, and that the rich also have to help the poor to act through
transfers of finance and technology.
According to the US, the absence of these terms means that the equity
principle and the “firewall” of different types of actions by developed
and developing countries are no longer valid in the new protocol or
“agreed outcome” that will emerge in 2015.
Not so, claim a large group of developing countries that include China,
India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Argentina,
Venezuela and Bolivia.
According to them, the fact that the Durban Platform will be “under
the Convention” means that the principles and provisions of the UN
Climate Change Convention will apply, and equity and ‘common but differentiated
responsibility’ are very prominent in the Convention.
In fact the Indian Environment Minister, in a speech to her Parliament,
stressed that equity is at the centre of the Durban Platform.
The equity issue is so hot that a special half-day workshop will be
devoted to it at this Bonn session.
Another bone of contention is the term “applicable to all Parties”
which appears in the Durban Platform decision. US officials have been
arguing that this means there is no longer a difference between what
developed and developing countries should do, and that the obligations
to reduce emissions should be the same for all countries.
But many developing countries have a different interpretation. In
a recent submission, India argued that this term merely restates the
obvious, that any outcome of the Durban Platform negotiations will
be applicable to all Parties, just as the Convention or the Kyoto
Protocol apply to all Parties.
The term does not signal a dilution of different responsibilities,
stressed India. “Both the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol that
are applicable to all Parties authorise and require differentiation
between Parties. Universality of application does not translate into
uniformity of application.”
In between these two views, the European Union accepts the Convention
principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective
capabilities, but argues that responsibilities and capabilities “evolve
over time.” The negotiations should provide for a “spectrum of commitments
that ensure the highest mitigation efforts...”
This seems to imply that some developing countries have already evolved
to a higher economic stage, and should be required to take on higher
responsibilities, as compared to other developing countries.
But this concept of ‘spectrum’ of commitments linked presumably to
a spectrum of types of developing countries will open up another complex
issue. Do we categorise countries according to their absolute economic
size and total emissions, or on a per capita basis?
Countries like China and India have huge populations and thus large
total incomes and emissions. But in terms of per capita income or
emissions, China is just an average developing country while India
is very low on the list of all countries. Where then in this “spectrum”
or range should they or other developing countries be placed?
At the heart of the debate is the issue of what constitutes fairness
or justice in allocating responsibilities for taking climate actions
such as reduction of emissions and the provision of finance and technology.
And this is a crucial issue, because people are more willing to act
when there is a shared feeling that everyone has agreed to act in
a manner that is fair to all.
The solution as to what constitutes fairness, balance and equity in
allocating future actions to curb and cope with climate change was
found earlier in the existing Convention and the Kyoto Protocol.
But some countries want to re-write the rules. Some who joined the
Kyoto Protocol have also left or are not willing to make commitments
Whether the rules should be re-written, and if so how so, will be
the Gordian Knot of these negotiations. The talks will be tough.
The world’s future will depend on it.