International Climate Change

Posted on: 22 October 2015

Red lines and dividing lines – Day 4 of the final COP21 negotiating session

Posted by: Frances Lawson

My debut appearance at a UNFCCC negotiating session met with an inauspicious start. Those with ‘observer’ status, of which I form part, have been unceremoniously excluded from the negotiating rooms themselves. If ever there was a sign of a process under acute stress, this is it. Such is the tension around collating the final hours of the negotiating text for the world’s politicians to consider, that all those deemed non-essential, and perhaps disruptive, to the task are being kept away.

Nevertheless, it does not take much time spent in the one meeting room to which observers are afforded entry to understand the fundamental red lines and dividing lines that are exercising those in the adjoining rooms. Particularly when the G77/China negotiating group decides to give a press conference, as it did this morning.

The greatest recurring theme of the day has been money, or ‘finance’ to give it its marginally more glamorous and official term. The unofficial target is for the Green Climate Fund to receive US $100 billion per year by 2020; a recent OECD report states that the current level of contributions has reached US$62 billion. Nevertheless, for the G77/China group, the $100 billion target is but the beginning, and the Paris Agreement, they say, absolutely must go much further in the level of financial commitments made legally binding thereunder. This is both their red line, and a major dividing line with other Parties for whom that is both unfeasible and unrealistic.

Part of the additional financing claimed relates to a second dividing line between the Parties – the rather opaque concept of ‘loss and damage’ which was described by one panellist as a politically acceptable label for ‘liabilities and compensation’ for damage to buildings, livelihoods attributed to climate change-induced natural disasters. Developed countries are refusing to have loss and damage incorporated into the Paris outcome. The current negotiating text contains virtually no options mentioning the term. One group of researchers gave a presentation calling for a levy to be applied to all fossil fuel extraction to reflect the vast profits made by the oil, gas and coal industries, with that money diverted to support loss and damage claims. An interesting idea for future contemplation, but despite the machinations of the G77/China group that incorporation of loss and damage is among their red lines, the clear indications are that it has been removed from the textual work in progress and will not feature in the legal document at the end of Paris.

A more general complaint of the G77/China group was that developed country Parties are trying to weaken their hand and subvert the Convention by the back door. It is striking just how much the developed countries cling to the Convention as a legal instrument, reciting its ‘binding force’ despite the lack of legal institutions and mechanisms to give it such effect. The message relayed today was that as developing countries are not members of the UN Security Council, only through the Convention do they have any power or influence. Hence any attempts, real or perceived, to take action other than under and in accordance with the Convention is met with the most vigorous opposition. ‘Trust’ is a word frequently invoked at COPs and negotiating sessions – everyone involved claims to trust everyone else. Yet the Parties’ rhetoric often suggests that strong elements of suspicion and distrust run right through the negotiation agenda.

The issue of subverting the Convention arose, predictably, in relation to finance. Many developed countries are keen to reframe climate finance in part as overseas aid, to bring it within the scope of their existing budgets rather than having to find and additional sources. The G77/China group were publicly hostile to these efforts in the press conference, denouncing both this and attempts to promote greater ‘South-South’ cooperation and financial support. The Convention, they said, obliges developed countries to provide sufficient resources to developing countries for both adaptation and mitigation. Interpreting that obligation, they say, does not allow for such measures as they reflect a shirking of developed country Parties’ responsibilities.

The most interesting of the questions posed by the assembled press was as poignant as it was succinct – ‘when does historic responsibility end?’ In other words, when do you, as the most powerful grouping of developing countries stop placing all the blame, and accordingly the burden, for climate change on countries that happened to go through the development process first? The question resulted in audible ripples around the room due to the high level of contentiousness contained within it. The response was unusual and unexpected – “if the world had really changed” began one of the leaders of the G77/China group, “then we would all be permanent members of the UN Security Council”.

With many pushing for COP21 commitments to reflect markedly different geopolitical realities and soften the Convention’s dividing line between developed and developing country Parties, the unwavering hardline stance of the G77/China gives little prospect for this major dividing line being resolved. “If the Parties wanted the Convention to be redrafted, if they felt it was no longer fit for purpose, then this is what the COP would have mandated in Durban” she continued. Instead, the Durban COP tasked the Parties with agreeing a new legally binding instrument in Paris to function under the existing Convention. The problem is that it is the outdated and rigid wording of that Convention that hinders the achievement of that new legally binding instrument. Another problem is that with developing country Parties vastly outnumbering the developed within the UNFCCC, the chances of the necessary majority voting against their own self-interest for a redrafting of the Convention in a way that makes it far less financially favourable to them are almost too remote to quantify.

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