Post-Bangkok Q&A; with Antonio Hill, Oxfam's Climate Envoy: We Need a "Major Turnaround"


Civil societies protested in front of the UN conference center in Bangkok, demanding rich nations to step up efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Photo credit: Mongkhonsavat Luengvorapant/Oxfam.

By the time climate talks in Bangkok wrapped up last week, developing nations hadn't only accused the world's richest (Annex I) countries of sabotaging the framework for a serious climate treaty in Copenhagen: they had put them on (mock) trial too. With less than 60 days to go before the big Copenhagen conference, I asked Antonio Hill, Oxfam's climate representative, for his inside take on the tensions at Bangkok and the potential for a real deal.

Developing countries (G77/China) say they have written proof that rich countries are attempting to derail climate talks. What kind of proof are we talking about?

They are referring to a collection of textual proposals that featured in "non-papers." These are proposed or draft texts that are pulled together by the Chair and facilitators of different subgroups and negotiating strands on the basis of interventions and consultations with governments...One example of "written proof" they point to lies in paragraph 14 of non-paper No. 16 (06/10/2009 @ 14:30) which appeared originally in a submission from Australia, and which reads:

"In addition to the principles outlined in Article 3 of the Convention, the Parties shall be guided, inter alia, by the following: (a)..., (b)..., (c) All Parties should aim to undertake a similar level of effort to others at a similar level of development and with similar national circumstances; (d)..."

On the surface, this sounds eminently sensible. But you need a bit of background in international law and the history of the UNFCCC and intergovernmental climate negotiations to understand the implications. This could fill a three-hour environmental law seminar but suffice it to say that developing countries object to this bit of text because: Article 3 (Objectives) of the UNFCCC already contain the principles that all countries agreed are required to guide international action on climate change (that's why they all negotiated, signed and ratified the Convention 15 years ago); trying to add, revise or re-interprets these principles at this time is pointless unless all countries agree they need to be changed (and the vast majority don't).

The only possible conclusion is that proposing countries (Australia in this case) are unsatisfied with what the principles imply for them and feel the need to add to or change them to better accomodate their interests today. The principle of common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities (Art. 3.1) already says that countries actions and contributions should be in line with their different levels of responsibility and capability. Introducing a new principle of "similarity" introduces a new concept and opens the door to a re-framing that begins to consider "national circumstances." Just as Australia has its national circumstances, every other country has its own.

Nobody's saying these aren't relevant (there's already a reference in the Bali Action Plan), only that a new principle along these lines is unnecessary and an indication that Australia (in this case) wants to change the rules of the game.

The US has also indicated it wants to scrap the terms set out by Kyoto and instead have each country set its own greenhouse gas limits. Is a deal still possible under this new approach?

If every country sets its own limits, I don't see a deal being possible. Annex I countries, including the US need to negotiate and agree targets -- for finance and mitigation -- up-front. Unless they do, I don't see a deal being possible and, if it is, it would most likely be highly inadequate (relative to what the science suggests is required).

The negotiations seem to hinge on the developed nations' commitments. That is, the developing countries expect developed nations to take the first steps. What kind of cuts and pledges would be considered baseline acceptable at this point?

True that. If rich countries agreed aggregate emissions reduction commitments of 40% cuts by 2020, and financing on the order of $150bn, I have no doubt that negotiations would breeze through. As this gets watered down, there are all kinds of complications. For example, having a negotiation about the use of "flexible mechanisms" (i.e. the CDM) to 'help' industrialized countries achieve more cost-effective emissions cuts may make sense if they're aiming for 40% cuts (because at this level of ambition cuts would be costly and difficult to achieve through domestic efforts alone or, put another way, the price of carbon would ramp-up quickly).

But if Annex I countries are only aiming for 11-18% below 1990 (as they are now), then this becomes a pointless exercise (and yet one that industrialized countries insist on having now for mysterious reasons). Of course, we'll only see what's truly acceptable to countries after the deal is done (if it is). Regardless of what countries agree, though, we can always benchmark it against what the science says is required and, unfortunately, that won't change regardless of the agreement reached in December.

Just how bitter were negotiations in Bangkok compared to previous meetings, and what sort of tone do you expect that meeting has set for December?

We've seen meetings that are far more acrimonious. Poznan comes to mind (see the webcast of the closing plenary on the UNFCCC site, starting about an hour in). But developing countries were pretty angry here. This arises as much from the kinds of positions decribed above but more so I think because they've now been through eight rounds of talks over the last few years and are frustrated that even rich countries still come unprepared to deliver their fair share.

There's one more session before December, in Barcelona, but developing country delegations are walking out of here thinking hard about how they're going to choose between what increasingly looks like a weak and inadequate agreement -- and one that may represent a significant departure from the current global climate regime -- or no agreement at all. Neither is a happy prospect, and it's hard to tell which is worse, really.

What's important is that there's still a third option, one that involves an agreement that really represents a major turnaround, benefits all around, and puts us on track to reduce risks of catastrophic climate change and deliver justice for those affected by its impacts first and worst. But having to contemplate the first two as real possibilities is of course dis-empowering and unpleasant, and the tone in December is unlikely to be pretty unless we see a major turnaround.

Did you see any promising results or prospects at the Bangkok meeting?

Negotiations have moved forward. Before Bangkok, there was lots of anxiety about the length and complexity of the text, and what that means for the prospects of an agreement. The problem's really not at the level of negotiators, the problem is they don't have instructions that allow them to secure an agreement. Political leaders -- ministers and heads of state -- need to decide what they want to set as the parameters for a Copenhagen agreement ASAP, and ideally before the next session in Barcelona.

In Bangkok Norway emerged as the leader among those developed nations that have offered commitments to make binding cuts. How willing are the remaining developed nations -- namely the U.S. and Canada -- to make similar offers?

The EU, Australia, and Japan have all taken steps and, like Norway, their offers are contingent on "comparable" (a subjective judgement so far) effort from others. The only real hold-outs remaining are the U.S., Canada, Russia, etc. Unfortunately, the question is not just whether they're willing to take first steps but also whether these will be big enough (and so far, none are). They continue to say they will only show their full hand at Copenhagen itself.

What role should the largest of the G77 economies -- China and India -- play at this point?

They should adopt the contingent offer approach that rich countries have taken by, for instance, elaborating how they think NAMAs (Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions) should work -- what measures they'd like to use, how they'd like to report, how they'd like a matching system (between proposed reductions and financing) would operate, etc. If they took a leadership position and made proposals along these lines in Barcelona, they'd lose nothing. They could still pull their offer off the table if it weren't matched with an adequate offer from rich countries, and would make it next to impossible for rich countries to avoid sitting down to real talks.

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Post-Bangkok Q&A; with Antonio Hill, Oxfam's Climate Envoy: We Need a "Major Turnaround"
By the time climate talks in Bangkok wrapped up