Climate change : How we got here by Richard Black at UN climate talks in Bonn

9/4/2010 BBC Richard Black From the UN climate talks in Bonn.“When you think back to Rio,” the delegate asked rhetorically, “would you ever have imagined it would end up like this?”

This is a delegate with much greater experience than me in this arena - someone who saw the UN climate convention come into being in 1992, and has been at all the important gatherings since. I am a gadfly compared to his elephant.

But no: thinking back to the Rio Earth Summit - no, I wouldn’t have imagined it would end up like this.

The idea of the UN climate convention is very simple.

Governments agree to keep effects of man-made climate change within safe boundaries, so rich nations promise first to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions and second to finance poorer ones to help them green their economies and protect themselves against climate effects caused principally by emissions from rich countries.

Really, that’s about it.

The notion that greenhouse-gas emissions might affect the Earth’s climate was first flagged up by scientists, and became a matter of politics only in the early 1990s. Now, much of the negotiating is done by lawyers.

While there are good reasons for that, it also explains how we got to where we are. Lawyers working on international treaties are good with language. In fact, they’re really good.

The best example I’ve come across is the document that the US sent to the UN climate convention secretariat [p48 of 295Kb PDF] about how work should progress this year.

(I single out this submission not to have a go at any particular country; rather because it’s very cleverly written.)

Here’s the preambular paean to the Copenhagen Accord, the document forged by a small group of leaders (and presented to the rest) on the meeting’s final day:

“Heads of State representing Parties with the overwhelming majority of global greenhouse gas emissions, together with leaders and heads of delegation representing a significant portion of the world’s vulnerable countries, personally engaged in intensive negotiations over two days, forging a consensus package among them that addresses the most fundamental issues on the table in the run-up to Copenhagen.”
Read casually, you might take that to mean that the accord:
  (a) represents a consensus and
  (b) that it takes care of emissions, money, technology and all the other issues
- neither of which is the case.

Read it again carefully, and you see that all it claims is that the accord represents a consensus among the small group that worked on the accord and that it refers to the issues - both of which are the case.

Exhibit B: targets. The Copenhagen Accord doesn’t set a firm target of keeping the global average temperature rise since pre-industrial times below 2C; instead it “recognises” the figure as one supported by science.

But the US drafters have come up with something that sounds a bit grander, namely that the accord:

“…establishes the first globally-agreed quantitative parameter for the ultimate objective of the Framework Convention, namely that the increase in global average temperature should stay below 2C compared to pre-industrial levels…”
“Globally-agreed” is stretching things a bit, as many governments haven’t endorsed the accord - all the Copenhagen summit did was to “take note” of its existence - but what’s really impressive is the phrase “quantitative parameter”, which rings like a bell without having any real meaning.

Many developing countries are harshly critical of the way the accord was agreed, citing the back-room deal as an example of bad faith from the most powerful nations.

The US take on this is that:

“Those involved in the development of the Accord negotiated in good faith with the intention that it result in an agreed outcome in Copenhagen…”
Again, it sounds impressive - until you realise that the “good faith” extends only across fewer than 30 countries.

There is more, but you’ve got the picture by now.

And therein, expanded across all political blocs and all issues and flowering gradually over the last 18 years, lies one of the explanations as to how we got from the fairly simple aims of Rio to where we are now, where the choice between a comma and a semi-colon can take discussions into the early hours.

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