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It’s the Little Things…Global Warming Negotiations with 21 (or so) Negotiation Days Left

Jake Schmidt

Posted October 4, 2009 in Solving Global Warming

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You know the saying: "it's the little things that matter".  Well you can't really take that saying too literally when discussing global warming pollution as it is the big things that ultimately matter such as pollution reduction cuts, assistance for developing countries in cutting emissions further, and support for the most vulnerable countries to adapt to the impacts of global warming.

But the negotiations during these two weeks in Bangkok, Thailand really need to move forward the little things at this stage.  We can grumble about how countries aren't making progress on the big issues (and that is true).  But it is clear to many delegates that I've talked to that the big decisions will have to made by the countries' leaders and the negotiators here in Bangkok don't have the mandate from the leaders yet to move from their opening bid.

After all, as I discussed here these negotiations are notorious for running into overtime and only being resolved in the 25th (or later) hour of the negotiations.  It is going to be a wild ride in Copenhagen this December!

So the "big things" aren't going to move at this stage in the negotiations with the level of decision-maker represented by most governments.  But there has been some progress on the little things this week that position these negotiations a bit better for strong success in Copenhagen when the leaders weigh-in.

Shorter, Shorter, and Shorter.  Those three magic words are the mantra of this negotiation session in Bangkok.  In the code words of negotiators it is "consolidated text" that countries are working on.  Basically what negotiators are trying to do is take a 180 page document (that I've discussed in part 1, part 2, and part 3) and narrow it down to a shorter document which focuses on the core options that Ministers and Heads of Government will have to decide on at Copenhagen.

The first week has actually resulted in a shortening of the text quite a bit.  I haven't added up all the pages yet, but there are rumors that it is around 100 pages.  Of course it isn't the size of the document that ultimately matters, but the commitments that underlie those words.  A lot of this shortening has simply been deleting duplicative text, but a part of it has been some honest efforts of some countries to move closer together on issues.

Emerging Areas of Convergence.  While not all the differences have been merged this week, there have been some minor moves towards convergence.  I'll give two examples that I noticed. 

First, about a year ago the developing countries put forward a proposal for how they wanted the financial incentives to be structured under the Copenhagen agreement.  It contained a lot of "opening bids", but one of their main points was that the funding should be directed not by the existing financial mechanisms (e.g., the World Bank).  Rather they wanted the financing decisions to be made under a structure that is more accountable to the countries represented in the climate negotiations (a more diverse group than on the World Bank Board) and by institutions that weren't simultaneously spending on projects that are causing global warming (e.g., traditional coal-fired power plants as the World Bank still does).  The US put forward a possible compromise.  They proposed that existing institutions be utilized since they are up and running and have strong oversight to ensure that money is spent as intended.  But they proposed that climate change funds disbursed by these existing institutions would be guided much more tightly by representatives accountable to the global warming agreement than to decision-makers in the World Bank.  This would represent a small move from the existing developed and developed country positions on this issue.

The second area of convergence resolves around the debate on the use of offsets by developed countries.  A number of developing countries have been signaling concern that the level of ambition put forward by developed countries doesn't justify the use of offsets in meeting those targets.  And they have stressed that they don't want offsets to simply "suck up their cheap tons".  So the EU, New Zealand, and Australia have responded by stressing that they want the design of the future carbon market to be based upon developing countries taking some level of action before they can sell offsets to the developed countries.  In this way, developing countries would invest in the "low hanging fruit" on their own (possibly with some capacity building and other type of assistance) and developed countries would incentive the more expensive options.

After all, you can't have both developing countries taking major steps on their own to curb global warming pollution and at the same time have developed countries purchase only the "cheap tons".  We have to hit the sweet spot between these two poles where developing countries undertake some action on their own and are supported in going further with offset financing from developed countries.  We must evolve from offsets to a different framework (as I've discussed here).  This is a framework that is included in the US Senate draft clean energy and global warming legislation that was just released and in the bill passed out of the House (as I discussed here).   

Another Developing Country Signals that it Will Cut Emissions.  Unnoticed at the time, but the Indonesian government announced at the G20 that it would cut its emissions on its own and could achieve even bigger reductions with assistance.  I'll do a separate post on the details, but this marks another developing country that has signaled that it will take serious steps to curb its global warming pollution.  Add this to the positive signs that emerged from China and India during "climate week" and the signs from Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and South Korea and you have a collection of the key emerging economies signaling that they'll curb their pollution. 

Waiting for clear signs from the US on what it will do.  As NRDC has said on multiple occasions, we can't have a successful conclusion at Copenhagen if the US Senate hasn't passed a bill.  Without a clear signal on the level of cut that the US will actually meet, the US will have no credibility in securing strong commitments from other countries.  So when the draft "clean energy jobs bill" (as my colleague discussed here) was released last week it help inject a bit of positive momentum into Bangkok.  But the uncertainty on the timing of the Senate final vote has provided a source of confusion and consternation (as you can see from this recent New York Times article and clarification later in that day in Greenwire [sub. req.]).  But a lot of things are happening behind the limelight in the US Senate that can help to move this process faster than it might seem at this stage (for some examples see my colleagues recent post).  So a lot can come together in the Senate over a short period of time as we witnessed in the House.

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Of course you can't solve global warming with hints, shorter text, and other "little things".  You have to make progress on cutting global pollution and supporting countries in adapting to the existing impacts.  So how did the first week in Bangkok do on the "big things"?

Little Progress on the Big Sticking Points, BUT...it is a negotiation.  Repeat after me: "it is a negotiation, it is a negotiation".  Countries lamented the lack of progress on the key issues and rightly so.  But the unfortunate history of the global warming negotiations is that these big decisions are often only made at the final moment when countries feel like they no longer get the other side to move any further.  So it looks like we are headed for a repeat.  Let's hope that the repeat provides us with the same dynamic, but a much stronger international commitment to solving global warming.

Because progress on the little things matters, but ultimately it is the big sweeping changes on clean energy and global warming pollution that determine if the world can say: "we lived up to the challenge".

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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