Monday, December 5, 2011

Uncertainty Lingers on Big-Ticket Items as Durban Prepares for Ministers’ Arrival

Adapted from ICSTD's Bridges Durban Update #2 (December 5, 2011)

This is the most difficult UNFCCC Conference of the Parties to get a read on in recent memory. That seems to be the only thing that delegates and observers will say with absolute certainty as COP 17 wraps up its first week in Durban. The fluidity of the discussions thus far, combined with the quick turn-around seen last year in Cancun once ministers took the helm, has most people close to the talks issuing the caveat that “anything can happen.”

Much of the mystery clouding week one is due to the high number of closed-door contact groups, informal sessions, and “indabas” - Zulu-inspired informal discussions encouraged by COP President Maite Nkoana-Mashabane - that are taking place on a wide range of issues. Both the media and delegates have said it has been difficult to keep track of the many discussions, let alone get a read on how the talks are progressing.

Informally, several delegates have expressed concern that while there has been movement on many unresolved details pushed forward from Panama, macro issues - most notably the future of the Kyoto Protocol - are advancing too slowly to be resolved before the talks come to a close on Friday.

Kyoto remains foggy at best

Last week’s discussions on a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol under the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) were intense, KP Chair Adrian Macey of New Zealand noted during Saturday’s plenary, with some core issues having “crystallised.” While the talks to date have shown a “considerable amount of common ground” regarding the Protocol’s continuity, commitments, and future certainty, Macey also acknowledged that divergence among the Parties still remains “significant. ”

Macey thanked Parties on Saturday for discussing issues that were “outside their comfort zone.” However, he cautioned the Parties against locking in a deal with low ambitions, urging instead that any second commitment period - should there even be one - be for a period of time that is worthwhile.

What is crucial for moving forward on Kyoto, he added, is that the Protocol be part of a whole Durban package - a package that will undoubtedly need to include a deal on mobilising the Green Climate Fund.

Green Climate Fund talks look positive

Despite complaints from critics that Washington was blocking the process on establishing a deal on the Green Climate Fund - agreed to at COP 15 in Copenhagen - talks in Durban have made some forward movement. Key Parties - including the US, Australia, and the EU - have indicated that the “middle ground” report that Fund Transitional Committee Co-Chair Trevor Manuel of South Africa introduced on Wednesday could be agreed to, as long as it is a part of a more balanced package.

The Transitional Committee had hoped to conclude talks on the Fund’s structure - such as establishing the 24-member board, deciding on a host country, and setting up regular meetings - in October. However, the matter was pushed back to Durban after hitting roadblocks on a range of outstanding issues.

A key sticking point for the US continues to be restrictions on who can contribute to the fund. Washington says it is crucial for the private sector to be able to contribute to the fund, while some developing countries are concerned about an overreliance on the private sector. The US also said on Friday that the Fund’s governing instrument should be approved in Durban.

The Fund was discussed in contact groups and informal consultations on Saturday, with several countries voicing concerns over the legal framework that will govern the Fund and its formal relationship to the COP. Developing countries are looking for reassurance that there will be some safety mechanism in place, should Annex I countires be unable to live up to their commitments. Meanwhile, Japan suggested that this tricky issue could be addressed later by the Board, rather than having to establish the relationship beforehand.

The EU wrapped up the discussion on Saturday, saying that they were confident they could agree on the draft instrument and that the Board should start work as soon as possible.

Politics more sensitive than usual

How the rest of Durban will unfold remains largely contingent on the US and China. Washington has been panned in recent years for its slowly diminishing commitment to climate change, especially given President Barack Obama’s post-election pledge to “engage vigorously” in the UN talks. Contrary to that promise, however, the Obama Administration’s presence has instead been markedly cautious.

“Some countries want to stipulate up-front that [post-2020 initiatives] should be in the form of a legally-binding agreement,” said Jonathan Pershing, US Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change on Monday. “We want to know more about the content of such an agreement before we commit to a particular legal form. One thing I would underscore about any post-2020 accord is that the only way it could be effective - and garner broad support - is if it applies fully to all significant players.”

Washington’s presence at this year’s talks has been conspicuously small, with not a single member of Congress - or any other major political figures - in attendance for the first time in years.

The role of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) countries has also painted much of the speculation regarding Durban‘s ultimate outcome. In particular, the future of Kyoto appears to hinge upon major developing country emitters signing on to some form of binding commitment to reduce emissions.

Some crack have already emerged over the first week among traditional political groupings, with rumours that poor countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change were becoming frustrated with their fellow G77 and China members who were blocking movement on contentious issues that could help move Kyoto forward.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Su Wei, China’s lead negotiator, surprised many by saying that Beijing may agree to binding emissions cuts.

“We do not rule out the possibility of legally binding,” he said in English. “It is possible for us, but it depends on the negotiations.”

It is unclear whether the move is a reaction to pressure from fellow G77 and China members or, simply, an attempt to elicit a response from Washington. Climate watchers will certainly be waiting to see how this move by China colours the discussions in week two as senior ministers arrive.

Read ICTSD's full Bridges Durban Update from here

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