The attempted negotiation “coup” by the developed nations in Bonn shows that the developing nations cannot relax their vigil at the climate negotiations.

The first substantive round of climate negotiations after Copenhagen that concluded in Bonn on June 11 began sedately enough. The dominant refrain in press briefings and reports in the global media was about “building trust” after the bitter debates in Copenhagen six months ago. One climate analyst, in a lyrical vein, detected a “gentle breeze of optimism,” while the correspondent of a major British newspaper reported finding a “remarkable amount of goodwill around.” Spokespersons from developing countries were more circumspect, though there was a rare optimistic note in the comments by negotiators of major developing countries at a media briefing on June 9.

However, the mood of constructive engagement rapidly dissipated in the second week, with the underlying conflicts coming to a head at the plenary sessions of the two negotiating tracks on the ultimate day. In a reversal of roles from the pre-Copenhagen days, it was Japan that held up the plenary session of the Ad hoc Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) — and as a consequence the final meeting of the Ad hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA) — demanding that the two plenaries be held together. This was clearly a renewed brute attempt to further its well-known demand to eventually bury the Kyoto Protocol.

But the ruder surprise for the developing countries was the fresh draft negotiating text of the AWG-LCA presented by chairperson Margaret Mukhanana-Sangarwe of Zimbabwe on the penultimate day of the meeting. Sweeping aside the views of the developing countries on a number of critical and contested issues, the text attempted to swing the negotiations decisively in favour of the developed nations. Bracketed text (which in the jargon of international negotiations denotes areas of disagreement and which is placed within square brackets) vanished across major sections of the document, to be replaced with wording that appeared to come straight out of the versions of the infamous “Danish text” that had bedevilled the negotiations in Copenhagen.

In one striking instance, going well beyond the language of the Copenhagen Accord, the un-bracketed text read: “Parties should cooperate in the peaking of global and national emissions by 2020,” suggesting that developing countries were amenable to the peaking of their emissions around 2020, when, in fact, no such agreement had even been hinted at by them. Un-bracketed text farther on called for mitigation action by the developing countries to deliver “in aggregate a substantial deviations in emissions from business-as-usual emissions by 2020” — again an unwarranted interpolation. In marked contrast, when referring to the mitigation action of the developed nations, the draft called for the reduction of “the aggregate greenhouse gas emissions of developed country Parties by 25-40%” by 2020 but left unspecified the reference year with respect to which emission reductions were to be measured. It may be recalled that it has been a favourite stalling tactic of the developed nations to quote emission reduction figures without specifying the base year with respect to which these reductions were to be measured.

As many developing countries' delegations noted, the text, inter alia, appeared also directed at diluting the Kyoto Protocol, undoing the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, and focussing on the monitoring, reporting and verification procedures for developing countries in an unbalanced way. As the Indian delegation noted at the closing plenary, references to equity and burden sharing were scrubbed off the section on the shared vision for future climate action.

The G77 (which includes India) and China were forthright in dismissing the draft text and asserting that it could not form the basis for future negotiations. From the chairperson's remarks it is clear that the draft text is to be revised before being presented as the official negotiating text at the next meeting of the AWG-LCA in August. However, one must await the next round to know the extent to which the chairperson would adhere to the appeal of the G77 and China, which had urged that the chairperson produce a more balanced text reflecting better their viewpoints. It is notable though that the G77 did not follow Bolivia in outrightly rejecting the document.

The developed nations, for their part, have initiated a counter campaign of criticising the current text with their own set of complaints. It is evident that the tactic is to mount pressure to ensure that the negotiating draft for the next round does not go too far in accommodating the protests of the developing nations. If prior experience is any indication, it is likely that these efforts would bear some fruit. In fact, the negotiating text that was presented on May 17 — before the talks began — had already made subtle but key changes, privileging the developed nations, to the final text that emerged from Copenhagen. For instance, a critical point made by India, in its submission before Bonn, elaborating on the equitable sharing of global atmospheric space was ignored.

The dominant trend in the global media reports on the last day in Bonn was to portray the disagreements at the plenary as yet another manifestation of the divide between the global North and South, when in fact the former had attempted something of a negotiation “coup”. The departing head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Yvo de Boer, indicated the nature of the coming media campaign with his remarks that the text was a “major advance” and that the talks showed an “increasing convergence on key issues.” Inspired by such remarks, the pro-developed nation spin in the media commentary on Bonn is already visible.

The first, and primary, lesson from Bonn is that post-Copenhagen, with the developed nations continuing to seek to force their hand at every turn (with negotiation “coups” if necessary), the developing nations cannot afford to take their eyes off the ball. Despite some superficial bonhomie on occasion or some progress on secondary issues, the key long-term agenda remains one of ensuring that the developing world either accepts a contraction of the developmental space available to it or faces the potentially disastrous consequences for the most vulnerable amongst them. This agenda continues to have the potential to disrupt the unity of the developing world at the negotiations.

The Bonn experience also provides another important lesson. If the global South, with the major developing economies taking the lead, has to regain the initiative in the negotiations, it will have to do so with a counter-campaign that takes a fresh look at the key issues in global climate negotiations. Climate justice and equity must undoubtedly remain the bedrock of their policy, but the details and minutiae of the negotiations have to be formulated in a revamped discourse that enables the developing world to avoid a reactive and, on occasion, querulous response to the challenges posed by the developed nations. Unfortunately, today, the conceptual heights of climate policy-making, across the entire gamut of issues from the economics of climate change or adaptation to the core issues of equity, are dominated by a framework imposed by the North.

The most important issue undoubtedly remains that of ensuring the drastic emission reductions that the developed countries are bound by treaty to undertake. But their hand cannot be forced without the developing nations gaining the upper hand in the arena of global public opinion. While the developing nations rightfully seek the support of the developed world in capacity-building, technology transfer and financial flows, they cannot outsource their strategic thinking on climate policy to itinerant consultants, Northern aid agencies and the multilateral institutions of an unequal world.

(T. Jayaraman is Chairperson, Centre for Science, Technology and Society, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.)


(With reference to an article “One step forward, two steps back” (Editorial page, June 14, 2010), the writer clarifies that it was Russia, with initial Japanese support, that stalled the plenary of the Ad hoc Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP), objecting to any reference to “enhanced” emission reduction commitments by the developed nations. The second paragraph said that it was Japan that did so.)

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