Sunday, January 17, 2010

Discord over an accord

Discord over an accord
Blurb: In Copenhagen, didn't world leaders just agree to keep talking?

Imagine a gathering of forty or so people at the function room of a Japanese restaurant in Quezon City.  It looked like any other meeting among friends.  These people had been moving in the same circles for
several years now, brought together by their common passion – the environment.  They were now everywhere: in the government, the diplomatic corps, the academe.  Most were with civil society.

That morning, everybody was buzzing about the just-concluded climate change conference in Copenhagen. The meetings in Denmark were aimed at obtaining commitments from 193 countries, developed and developing alike, on how they would cut global emissions to lower the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. At the same time, the parties would figure out how best to help the most vulnerable nations cope with the effects of global warming.
Some of those present in the meeting had just returned from Copenhagen, participating in different capacities.  Actually, they had been to many other talks leading to this last one -- all the way from Bali, Bangkok and Poznan. All were eager to share their observations, experiences and opinions.

Merely “noted”

The Copenhagen Accord was born at the end of the two-week talks. Western media hailed it as a victory. The 2009 Nobel Peace laureate, United States President Barack Obama, the quintessential deal broker, was there, after all.

Actually, the accord was a three-page document that says the Conference of Parties was
agreeing to talk some more. There will be another meeting in June, followed by the next conference in Mexico in November or December. Nations are given until the last day of this month to declare heir adoption of the accord and submit their commitments to the secretariat.

The document says the parties recognize “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” and that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius. Developing countries, though, want the target pegged to 1.5 degrees by a specific year. The accord also says that the peaking of global and national emissions should be “as soon as possible.” Vague, critics say. Scientists say greenhouse levels should peak within five years if the human race even hopes to reverse the warming. Financing, on the other hand – and billions of dollars have been pledged during the meetings – will flow through the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund.

But the accord was arrived at during the last hour of the negotiations, borne out of a meeting among the “Friends of the President” -- a 26-member group of nations that the president of the conference said was “representative” of the plenary. Apparently, with the heads of state already arriving in the city, they felt they cad to come up with something. Anything, in fact. But there was just so much disagreement over the document that agreeing on it was just impossible. Hence, the parties just decided to “take note” of the accord. What does “taking note” mean? It is “a way of recognizing is there but not going so far as to associate yourself with it,” explains United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change executive director Yvo de Boer.

The accord was also only politically binding, contrary to the wishes of the developing countries. The words “legally binding” were conspicuously removed from earlier drafts.

Some ugly truths

There were some gains in this round of talks, according to the Filipinos who were there or who monitored the proceedings.  There was deeper and better quality participation by the developing countries. But this participation was not enough to do away with fundamental and hence persistent stalemates between and among countries, especially in mitigation and financing. Emission cuts, of course, is not congruous with increasing economic output. Towards the end, there were even insinuations that financing would be closely linked to a country's adoption of the accord.

In sum, the supposed leadership and statesmanship of developed countries for the shared destiny of the planet took a backseat to their national interests.

But more than the outcome of the talks (or the lack of it), what outraged these observers was the way processes and even basic decency were disregarded. “Disappointed” would be an understatement, another Filipino delegate to Copenhagen said. The negotiations, especially in the few remaining hours, were opaque. What the group of 26 countries managed to arrive at – what became the Copenhagen Accord-- was rammed into the throats of the remaining countries in an effort to get them to agree. They didn't, and, as we know now, the conference ended with a resounding “Noted!”

Philippine negotiators had their own share of woes. They encountered accreditation problems and were not pleased at all to learn that the official delegation was a presidential delegation. Some of the Filipinos who knew the issues like the back of their hand had to be adopted by other countries just to be able to join the talks. “The Philippine delegation has to jell,” one of them said. It didn’t during this last one.

Many of those present in the Quezon City gathering think the Philippines should not rush in adopting the accord because it reflects so little of the science-based discussions they have been discussing over the years.

(Bad) deal or no deal

In the meantime, can the planet really afford to wait for climate negotiators to get their act together and forge a good-enough global deal?

It won't happen in his lifetime, another delegate to Copenhagen, an academician, concedes. He describes his moment of epiphany, walking in the snow back to his hotel. It was dawn and the previous day's talks had just wrapped up – another day of talking without breaking the deadlock. It occurred to him that if the world, especially the United States and China, could not overcome their fundamental differences, there was no chance that the international community would come to an acceptable deal anytime soon.
By acceptable, he meant that global temperatures would rise no higher than 1.5 degrees Celsius and the greenhouse gas levels would go down to 350 parts per million (it is now 372 ppm; scientists say if 450 ppm is reached, the world will reach the tipping point of irreversible climate change) within 10 to 20 years.

That recognition was, to him, as liberating as it was depressing.
This expert thinks the focus now should be on adaptation, especially for vulnerable countries
like the Philippines. He also suggests that we rethink the all-or-nothing, single-undertaking approach. There has been some progress made, especially in the area of reforestation. It is the aspects of mitigation and finance that are tricky. And while we must keep working on this as we join forces with the rest of the developing world, we should make do with what we have.

Other participants said that what made Copenhagen such a disappointment was the lack of sincerity of the representatives of the developed countries, who made such a big to-do about the conference in the media but employed their rogue behavior during the conference proper.

Okay, it happened, and yes, it was sad, but in the meantime, what can we do? Surely we can do better than agree to talk some more. The clock is ticking, after all.

The way forward

Given the many stumbling blocks, climate change advocates and the populace in general should focus on the way forward. For example, the implementing rules and regulations of the Climate Change Act of
2009 is now being drafted. The problem is that the Office of the Presidential Adviser on
Climate Change is reportedly under pressure to finish the IRR before May, even as it says that it has a provision making it easier for civil society organizations to engage with the government on
various aspects of the law. The non-government organizations hope this is not just lip service as they wonder: why the rush? They would rather have inputs from the next administration. Since the president sits as chairman of the Climate Change Commission, he will have a direct hand in the commission's work. The order of the day is to impress upon all presidential candidates that climate change, while not as sensational as the other problems of the nation, is just as urgent.

Again we are reminded that ultimately, the really fundamental stalemates are not questions of science, politics, even diplomacy. They are rather issues of basic human behavior – ego, selflessness, sincerity and trust, without which the most sophisticated meetings don't stand a chance to succeed.

adellechua@gmail.com

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